When to Bayes

Richard Swinburne

The Following essay review of Richard Swinburne’s The Resurrection of God Incarnate appreared originally in Ars Disputandi (Utrecht) and is reprinted here without editorial changes.

The Resurrection of God Incarnate
By Richard Swinburne (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003; 232 pp.; hb. £ 45.00, pb. £ 16.99; ISBN: 0-19-925745-0/0-19-925746-9.)

Reviewed by Andrew Wohlgemuth
University of Maine, USA

1 Introduction
[1] Swinburne states, ‘New Testament scholars sometimes boast that they inquire into their subject matter without introducing any theological claims. If they really do this, I can only regard this as a sign of deep irrationality on their part. It is highly irrational to reach some conclusion without taking into account 95 per cent of the relevant evidence…But of course they couldn’t really do this if they are to reach conclusions about whether the Resurrection occurred…For you couldn’t decide whether the detailed historical evidence was strong enough to show that such an event as the Resurrection occurred without having a view whether there was prior reason for supposing that such an event could or could not occur. What tends to happen is that background theological considerations—whether for or against the Resurrection—play an unacknowledged role in determining whether the evidence is strong enough. These considerations need to be put on the table if the evidence is to be weighed properly.’ (p.3) Swinburne’s book has this ambitious and worthy aim.

[2] The book is in three parts, and has an appendix in which he uses the probability calculus to formalize his arguments. He concludes that the probability of Jesus being God Incarnate and being raised from the dead is very high. His assignment of what he feels to be conservative probabilities to the relevant data leads, via the probability calculus, to a probability of 97% that God Incarnate in the person of Jesus was raised from the dead.

2 The Probability Calculus
[3] Swinburne describes three types of probability: physical probability, statistical probability, and inductive (or logical) probability. (Some people identify physical probability with statistical probability.) Statistical probability is the most widely known. It rests on events—technically, subsets of a probability space. A typical probability space might be the set of all possible outcomes in some game of chance. Actuarial science and the physical sciences make use of statistical probability—which has been well developed mathematically. Probabilities in statistical probability can be assigned with precision.

[4] Logical probability is an extension of the propositional and predicate calculus—the formal logical structure of mathematical argument itself. It was developed by J.M. Keynes (A Treatise on Probability, MacMillan, 1921), because in many real-life situations one proposition, say q, does not follow another, say p, with the complete certainty of ‘p implies q’ in a mathematical argument. Instead, we might only be able to say that we are fairly sure that q would follow, if we knew p. Thus, a probability, a number from 0 to 1, might be assigned to the expectation that q would be true, if we knew that p was true. This probability is denoted by P(q/p) (the ‘probability of q given p’). Thus p implies q in the logical, or mathematical, sense provided that P(q/p) = 1.

[5] I think we all feel that it is reasonable and meaningful to ask if something is likely to happen, or likely has happened. To give an easy example, consider the forecast that the chance of rain today is 80%. We base this on experience. The forecasters notice that it actually did rain on 80% of the days that had the same early-morning conditions as today. This is an example of statistical probability. The underlying probability space is the set of days with the same initial conditions as today. The event we’re concerned with is rain.

[6] Suppose, however, that our neighbor Tom is accused of knocking his wife unconscious while in a rage. Although there may be no way to form a meaningful probability space here, we can nevertheless feel strongly that Tom is likely to have done it—or very unlikely. We do this by considerations that run deeper than the merely statistical. Of course, if Tom habitually knocks people about while in a rage, then we may not need to go any deeper than the statistical. But if the accusation is unexpected and unique, then we begin to rely on things such as Tom’s character, as it is known to us, in order to support our feelings of the likelihood of his having done the deed.

[7] This is what Swinburne is doing in his book. He is asking whether God is likely to have done certain things, and he is adding that in with the smaller world of history. Christians, of course, do believe that some things can be known about the character of God. I’ll look first at the formal treatment in the appendix, and then go to the material in Chapter 1.

[8] Swinburne lists 5 axioms of the probability calculus. (The axioms of the predicate calculus are implicitly also needed.) Axiom 4, which will play a prominent role, follows.

(4) P(p&q/r) = P(p/q&r)P(q/r)

[9] Substituting h, e, and k (letters Swinburne will use later) for p, q, and r gives

P(h&e/k) = P(h/e&k)P(e/k)

[10] Dividing both sides by P(e/k) gives

P(h&e/k)∕P(e/k) = P(h/e&k)

[11] Since h&e is logically equivalent to e&h, we can substitute

P(e&h/k)∕P(e/k) = P(h/e&k)

[12] Now by Axiom 4, P(e&h/k) = P(e/h&k)P(h/k), so we can substitute for P(e&h/k) to get

P(e/h&k)P(h/k)∕P(e/k) = P(h/e&k)

[13] Interchanging left and right sides of the equation gives

(4′) P(h/e&k) = P(e/h&k)P(h/k)∕P(e/k)

[14] Swinburne states, ‘Among the theorems that follow from the axioms is a crucial theorem known as Bayes’s Theorem. I express it using letters ‘e’, ‘h’, and ‘k’ which can represent any propositions at all; but we shall be concerned with it for the case where e represents observed evidence (data), k represents ‘background evidence’, and h is a hypothesis under investigation’ (p. 206) Equation 4′ above is Bayes’s Theorem as Swinburne expresses it. I have derived it to show that it follows from the axioms by the two simple algebraic operations of substitution and dividing both sides of an equation by the same thing. It is customary, when talking about formal languages (like the propositional, predicate, and probability calculus) to refer to anything that follows from the axioms as a ‘theorem’. In other mathematical branches with which the reader may be more familiar (like geometry or calculus, for example), the use of the word ‘theorem’ is reserved for deeper results. The foregoing should take away any mystery from the use of ‘Bayes’s Theorem’. It is really just a rephrasing of an axiom.

[15] As to the axioms, Swinburne states, ‘It is very easy to see intuitively the correctness of these axioms.’ (p. 206) At which point he explains them in words. When he gets to axiom 4 however, he appeals to successive tosses of a coin—which doesn’t model the situation accurately. We don’t know what p, q, and r are. In order to see why axiom 4 is true, we can relate the logical probabilities to conditional (statistical) probabilities. Thus let p, q, and r be events with probabilities P(p), P(q), and P(r). Let p be the proposition ‘p occurs’, and similarly for q and r. The conditional probability P(a/b) (the ‘probability of ‘a’ given ‘b’)’ for events a and b is defined to be P(a&b)∕P(b). In this case

Axiom (4) P(p&q/r) = P(p/q&r)P(q/r)

[16] in terms of conditional probabilities is

P(p&q/r) = P(p/q&r)P(q/r)

[17] which by definition is

P(p&q&r)∕P(r) = [P(p&q&r)∕P(q&r)][P(q&r)∕P(r)]

[18] which is an identity, since the factors P(q&r) cancel.

[19] It should be noted here that while any conditional probabilities (of statistical probability) can be seen as propositions of logical probability (as we have done), the reverse is not so—simply because there may not be any well-defined probability space. It is crucial for the case Swinburne makes that meaningful probabilities can be assigned to the factors on the right-hand side of equation 4′. Once that is granted, the probability on the left side must be accepted as calculated. I have shown the ‘intuitive correctness’ of axiom 4, since it follows from definition in the realm of statistical probability, which can be viewed as a restricted case of logical probability—the case in which we would find illustrative examples.

[20] Specifying the factors in equation 4′, Swinburne states, ‘Let k now be…the evidence of natural theology (including the sinning and suffering of humans). Let e be the detailed historical evidence, consisting of a conjunction of three pieces of evidence (e1 &e2 &e3 ). e1 is the evidence of the life of Jesus set out in Part II. e2 is the detailed historical evidence relating to the Resurrection set out in Part III. e3 is the evidence (summarized in Chapter 3) that neither the prior nor the posterior requirements for God being incarnate were satisfied in any prophet in human history in any way comparable with the way in which they were satisfied in Jesus.’ (p. 210) ‘Let h1 be the hypothesis that God became incarnate in Jesus, and h2 the hypothesis that Jesus rose from the dead. h is the conjunction (h1 &h2 ). Now at the end of the day this book is interested in P(h∕e&k)—the probability that Jesus was God Incarnate who rose from the dead (h), on the evidence both of natural theology (k) and of the detailed history of Jesus and of other human prophets (e).’ (p. 211)

[21] Assigning probabilities to the factors of equation 4′ is done by building up from other factors: ‘Let us represent by t theism, the claim that there is a God of the traditional kind. P(t/k) is the probability that there is such a God on the evidence of natural theology. I suggested in Chapter 1 that we give this the modest value 1∕2.’ (p. 211) Swinburne backs up this value only in the last paragraph of Chapter 1: ‘This evidence, the evidence of natural theology, provides general background evidence crucially relevant to our topic. I have argued elsewhere the case for this evidence giving substantial probability to the existence of God. (See esp. my The Existence of God and the shorter Is there a God? (Oxford University Press, 1996)). I cannot, for reasons of space, argue that case again here. But to get my argument going here, I will make only the moderate assumption that the evidence…makes it as probable as not that there is a God…’ (p. 30) I’ll return to more in Chapter 1, Principles for Weighing Evidence, after another illustration of assigning probabilities.

[22] ‘Then let us represent by c the claim that God became incarnate among humans at some time with a divided [’…he could act and react in his human life in partial ignorance of, and with only partial access to his divine powers.’ (p. 52)] incarnation, a more precise form of the way described by the Council of Chalcedon…and set out in Chapter 2. I suggested there that if there is a God (and there are humans who sin and suffer), it is quite probable that he would become incarnate…I suggested that it was ‘as probable as not’ that he would do this, and so in numerical terms the probability of his doing it is 1/2. The probability of 1/2 is clearly unaffected if we add to [should read ‘t’] all the data of natural theology, and so P(c/t&k) = 1∕2.’ (p. 211) Since P(c/k) = P(c&t/k) = P(c/t&k)P(t/k) by Axiom 4 and the logical equivalence of c and c&t, P(c/k) = 1∕4.

3 The Grand Philosophical Principle
[23] The two paragraphs above suffice to illustrate the completely subjective nature of assigning probabilities to the factors involved in the calculations. I don’t mean to imply that being subjective is necessarily bad, although I would not want to be involved personally with arguing the case for certain subjective probabilities. In the main body of the book, there are arguments for why Swinburne believes these probabilities to be reasonable—even conservative.

[24] The most problematical assertion in Chapter 1 is the following: ‘It is a further fundamental epistemological principle additional to the principle that other things being equal we should trust our memories, that we should believe what others tell us that they have done or perceived—in the absence of counter-evidence. I call this the principle of testimony. It must be extended so as to require us to believe that—in the absence of counter-evidence—when someone tell us that so-and-so is the case…they have perceived or received testimony from others that it is the case. Without this principle we would have very little knowledge of the world.’ (p. 13) There is no doubt that we get almost all of our information about the world in this way—but we also get a very good amount of misinformation too. For example, in a letter to John Norvell in 1807, Thomas Jefferson wrote, ‘Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle. The real extent of this state of misinformation is known only to those who are in situations to confront facts within their knowledge with the lies of the day.’ If we change the word ‘lies’ to the word ‘fancies,’ we get a fair account of my own experience. I also have a great skepticism of grand philosophical principles that are used to draw inferences in special cases in arguments. If the special cases are not seen to be true themselves, how can the generalization be seen to be true?

[25] Swinburne would be on much sounder ground to take, as his ‘principle of testimony’, something in his next paragraph: ‘Testimony by more than one witness to the occurrence of the same event makes it very probable indeed that that to which they testify is true—to the extent to which it is probable that they are independent witnesses.’ (p. 13)

[26] A discussion of the probability of a miracle must, I suppose, bring up David Hume. Swinburne says, ‘Hume’s discussion suffers from one minor deficiency, one medium-sized deficiency, and one major one.’ (p.24)…‘But Hume’s worst mistake was to suppose that the only relevant background theory to be established from wider evidence was a scientific theory about what are the laws of nature. But any theory showing whether laws of nature are ultimate or whether they depend on something higher for their operation is crucially relevant. If there is no God, then the laws of nature are the ultimate determinants of what happens. But if there is a God, then whether and for how long and under what circumstances laws of nature operate depends on God. And evidence that there is a God, and in particular evidence that there is a God of a kind who might be expected to intervene occasionally in the natural order, will be evidence leading us to expect occasional violations of laws of nature.’ (p. 25)

4 Proof by Lack of Imagination
[27] Since I faulted Swinburne on using grand generalizations in a logical argument, I feel the need to fault Hume on the same account. Hume states, ‘It being a general maxim, that no objects have any discoverable connexion together, and that all the inferences, which we can draw from one to another are founded merely on our experience of their constant and regular conjunction; it is evident, that we ought not to make an exception to this maxim in favor of human testimony, whose connexion with any event seems, in itself, as little necessary as any other.’ (An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding, edition by The Liberal Arts Press, 1955, p.119) This ‘maxim’ is Hume’s own grand philosophical principle. It elevates mere correlation, and pronounces the discovery of causation as hopeless. The most obvious counter-example is modern medical science, where correlation most often prompts the question—to which the discovery of causation constitutes the answer. One may not think it fair to fault Hume for not being familiar with modern medical science, but that gets us to an important point. Hume’s assertion that ‘all the inferences, which we can draw from one (object) to another are founded merely on our experience of their constant and regular conjunction’ is a mere proof by lack of imagination—which, in general, would run something like this: ‘I can imagine it being like this. I can’t imagine it being any other way. Therefore, it must be like this.’ Logical possibilities cannot be ruled out simply because they do not present themselves to even the best human imagination. For a statement or argument to be truly logical, it must exclude the possibility of a counter-example. That’s what makes it logical (instead of empirical). If a counter-example is ever found, it shows that the statement or argument was not logical in the first place.

[28] There is no doubt but that Hume intended his maxim to be part of a logical argument. He begins, ‘I flatter myself, that I have discovered an argument of a like nature, which, if just, will, with the wise and learned, be an everlasting check to all kinds of superstitious delusion, and consequently, will be useful as long as the world endures. For so long, I presume, will the accounts of miracles and prodigies be found in all history, sacred and profane.’ (ibid. p. 118) And concludes, ‘The plain consequence is (and it is a general maxim worthy of our attention), ’That no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous…’ (ibid. p. 123) And right in the middle of this argument is his maxim—which appears ridiculous to scientific eyes.

[29] It is interesting, to me, that Hume thinks his argument will be effective with the ‘wise and learned’. When looking through Swinburne’s references and related material, I noted numerous statements of Hume’s brilliance. Hume ponders his own ‘genius’, and is concerned with the ‘admiration of mankind’. (ibid. p. xi) I am uncomfortable in a field where people feel it appropriate to attest to the brilliance of anyone. It smacks of whistling in the dark—and I suspect the praise is lavished on those with a philosophy close to one’s own.

[30] Except for one place in which his ‘principle of testimony’ creeps in, Swinburne’s five-and-one-half page introduction states his case well. At the end of the introduction, he states, ‘Although there are, I believe, a number of original detailed historical arguments in this book, its main task is to put arguments developed by others into a wider frame so as to form an overall picture.’ (p. 6) In the body of the book, he addresses the program of the introduction, and motivates the assignment of probabilities assigned in the appendix.

[31] Swinburne’s main thesis, that one should make decisions about the likelihood of things only in the broadest context available, is very well taken. For example, consider suffering. Swinburne says, ‘I argued in The Existence of God that it is “more probable than not” that there is a God. However, my subsequent more satisfactory argument in Providence and the Problem of Evil to show that suffering does not count against the existence of God relied in part on the supposition that God would become incarnate to share our suffering and to make atonement for our sins.’ (p. 31 note)

[32] Suffering has been felt to be inconsistent with an omnipotent, good, and omniscient God. The only way I can see to reconcile these is to observe that the evidence is not all in yet—except in one case. Who could say that anyone suffered more than Jesus—with sweating blood (hemathidrosis) in Gethsemane, even before the physical abuse began. Yet who would want to say that Jesus himself would be better off, now, without the suffering. Jesus is the only one of us for whom we have enough information to decide that ‘suffering does not count against the existence of God’. And St. Paul says, ‘Christ has been raised from the dead, as the first-fruits of all who have fallen asleep.’ (1 Cor. 15:20) And, ‘Just as all die in Adam, so in Christ all will be brought to life; but all of them in their proper order: Christ the first-fruits, and next, at his coming, those who belong to him.’ (1 Cor. 15:22,3) And St. James says that ‘we should be a sort of frirst-fruits of all his creation.’ (James 1:18, italics mine, of course) So where the results are in, we see that God is justified, and we have promises that when all the results are in, God will be justified.

The Jesus Process: Maurice Casey

Mythicism: A Story of Bias, Incompetence and Falsehood

Copyright (c) 2012, Maurice Casey

One of the most remarkable features of public discussion of Jesus of Nazareth in the twenty-first century has been a massive upsurge in the view that this important historical figure did not even exist. This view, unknown in the ancient world, became respectable during the formative period of critical scholarship in the nineteenth century, when it was no longer possible for recent Christian opinions to be taken for granted among educated European scholars. Because of its scholarly presentation, with as much evidence and argument as could reasonably be expected at that time, this view was much discussed by other learned people. In the later twentieth century, competent New Testament scholars believed that it had been decisively refuted in a small number of readily available books, supported in scholarly research by commentaries and many occasional comments in scholarly books.[1]

The presentation of this view has changed radically in recent years, led by hopelessly unlearned people. It has two major features. One is rebellion against traditional Christianity, especially in the form of fundamentalism. The second is the massive contribution of the internet. Unlike published scholarly work, the internet is uncontrolled and apparently uncontrollable. Two of the most influential writers of published work advocating the mythicist view, that is, the view that Jesus was not a historical figure, but rather a myth, appeal directly to an audience on the internet.

In Jesus: Neither God Nor Man, Earl Doherty, one of most influential of these mythicists, has commented:

The advent of the Internet has introduced an unprecedented “lay” element of scholarship to the field….the absence of peer pressure and constraints of academic tenure, has meant that the study of Christian origins is undergoing a quantum leap in the hands of a much wider constituency than traditional academia…

Commenting further on his website and his previous book, he added,

The primary purpose of both site and book was to reach the open-minded ‘lay’ audience…[2]

This is as inaccurate as possible. The internet audience is ‘lay’, but it is not open-minded. It has both ‘Christian apologists’, whom mythicists love to hate, and atheists who are determinedly anti-Christian. Both groups consist largely of people with closed minds who are impervious to evidence and argument, a quite different world from the critical scholars among whom I am happy to have spent most of my life, whether they were Christian, Jewish or irreligious. We were not concerned by ‘peer pressure’ or the ‘constraints of academic tenure’, except that we were united by an absolute determination to oppose any threat to the academic freedom of people in our universities, regardless of status, colour, race, religion or creed.

Doherty was born in Canada in 1941. He was brought up as a Catholic.  He comments, ‘I became an atheist at the age of 19…’. Doherty claims to hold a B.A. with distinction in Ancient History and Classical Languages, but he does not say at what institution he obtained it, and his ability to read texts accurately seems very limited. When he has read any critical scholarship, Doherty is hopelessly out of date. For example he announces that Mark contains ‘many anachronisms. It is generally agreed, for example, that there is no evidence for synagogues (in which Jesus is regularly said to preach) in Galilee forty years prior to the Jewish War….’[3] This relies on out of date scholarship, which Sanders saw straight through, and which critical scholars no longer believer in.[4] By 2009, Doherty should have known better, including the archaeological remains of synagogues at Gamla, Herodium and Masada, and the Theodotus inscription (CIJ ii, 1404) which records the building of a synagogue in Jerusalem.

Doherty nonetheless repeatedly depends on later Christian traditions. For example, he comments firstly on the epistles, ‘important fundamentals of doctrine and background, which almost two millennia of Christian tradition would lead us to expect, are entirely missing.’[5] This ‘finding’ is clearly contrary to the nature of historical research. The last thing we should expect to find in first century documents is the deposit of centuries of later Christian tradition.

Doherty discusses passages which he cannot imagine Luke omitting if he knew them. The appropriate setting for this is not critical, as is obvious when Doherty quotes R. H. Stein, Senior Professor of New Testament Interpretation at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary:

Why would Luke have omitted such material as the coming of the wise men? Would not the presence of such Gentiles at the birth of Jesus have been meaningful for Luke’s Gentile-oriented Gospel? Why would he have omitted the flight to Egypt and return to Nazareth; the story of the guards at the tomb and their report; the unique Matthean material concerning the resurrection; and so on? Added to this is the observation that if Luke had before him Matthew’s birth account and genealogy, one wonders if he would not have sought in some way to ‘harmonize’ the one we have in his Gospel with the Matthean version.[6]

This is fundamentalism, or simply amateur forensics, not critical scholarship or historical research. Luke was a highly educated Greek Christian. He did not read about ‘wise men’ being ‘Gentiles’ at the birth of Jesus. He read about ‘magoi from the East’ (Mt. 2.1). From his point of view they were something like magicians or astrologers, and the notion that ‘we saw his star in the East’ (Mt. 2.2) probably seemed silly enough, before he got to ‘Behold, the star which they saw in the East, went before them, until it came and stood over the place where the child was’ (Mt. 2.9). Luke will have known perfectly well that not only did such things not happen, but magicians/astrologers told untrue stories in which such things did happen. He was writing for churches in the Greco-Roman world, and he will have known that starting like that would not have been attractive to the sort of people he knew well.

The most chronic comment is the last one. It is fundamentalists who ‘harmonize’ their sacred texts. Luke had good reason not to believe that an ‘angel of the Lord’ appeared to Joseph and not to Mary! What’s more, Joseph found out that she was pregnant and needed the vision to stop him divorcing her (Mt. 1.18-25).  Matthew’s gospel was not scripture in a canonical New Testament and lacking such authority, why would the need for harmonisation have arisen at all? It was a Gospel written by one of ‘many (people)’ who ‘set their hand to compiling an orderly account concerning the events which have been fulfilled among us’ (Lk. 1.1), and one which was too Jewish for Luke. Why ‘harmonize’ it with anything? Why not prefer a different story or write his own? The result is infinitely better for educated Greek Christian readers. There are no astrologers, and no doubt by Joseph about Mary’s pregnancy, let alone a threat to divorce her. Instead, we have the birth of John the Baptist as well as Jesus, with the angel of the Lord appearing to John’s father as well as to Mary, the Magnificat and the Nunc Dimittis. Why harmonize that with Matthew when it is far better on its own!

Doherty uncritically follows Kloppenborg on what some scholars call ‘Q’. Some scholars now regard his view that this was a single Greek document as the dominant theory.[7] The mainstream version of this view has one general problem, namely that the disappearance of ‘Q’ is difficult to explain. Other scholars believe that the ‘Q’ material was not source material used independently by Matthew and Luke, but that Luke copied parts of Matthew, editing as he went along. This is the hypothesis of Goodacre and others which Doherty was so concerned to criticize, because it would leave him without a document from which major aspects of the life and teaching of Jesus were missing. A third view has been widespread among the very small proportion of New Testament scholars who can read Aramaic, the language which Jesus spoke. I call this a ‘chaotic’ hypothesis, because it supposes that the synoptic Gospels had several different sources, some of which were in Aramaic not Greek, and I carried it further myself in a book published in 2002.[8] Doherty shows no sign of having grappled with this work, which issues in results he cannot even contemplate, especially that some traditions in the synoptic Gospels are perfectly accurate. He therefore omits everything of this kind.

Doherty’s ‘original’ work on Paul is equally frightful. In accordance with a regrettable lack of information about conventional scholarship, he shows no knowledge of the fundamental work of the anthropologist E.T. Hall, who introduced the terms ‘high context culture’ and ‘low context culture’ into scholarship.[9] Paul’s epistles were written in a high context culture, which was homogeneous enough for people not to have to repeat everything all the time, whereas American, European and many other scholars belong to a low context culture, which gives them quite unrealistic expectations of what the authors of the epistles ought to have written. This is one basic reason why Paul says so little about the life and teaching of Jesus. To some extent, his Gentile Christians had been taught about Jesus already, so he could take such knowledge for granted. He therefore had no reason to mention places such as Nazareth, or the site of the crucifixion, nor to remind his congregations that Jesus was crucified on earth recently.

Doherty’s examples are especially chronic. One is ‘Calvary’. He makes up a fictional conversation between Paul and his converts. It includes a comment from ‘Julia’ who says how Paul had been to Jerusalem and ‘could stand on the very spot where Jesus was crucified’. He has Paul reply, ‘My dear lady, I’ve never been to Calvary…it’s only a little hill after all.’ Again, on the text of Gal. 4.4f, which is important for establishing that Paul knew perfectly well that Jesus was a historical not a mythical figure, he suggests that Paul somehow should have said ‘God sent his son to die on Calvary and rise from the tomb’.[10]

The English term ‘Calvary’ is a translation, or rather virtually a transliteration, of the Latin calvaria, and would therefore not have been used by Paul either in conversation with his Greek-speaking converts or in a Greek epistle. The Latin calvaria means ‘skull’, so Doherty has Paul say in effect, partly in the wrong language, ‘I’ve never been to Skull’, and supposes that he should have written, again partly in the wrong language, ‘God sent his son to die on Skull and rise from the tomb’. This illustrates how ignorant Doherty is. The Latin calvaria is first recorded as used as a translation of Golgotha by the Latin father Tertullian (Against Marcion, III, 198). Our oldest source says that they, probably a whole cohort, ‘took Jesus to the Golgotha place, which is in translation, “place of skull”’ (Mk 15.22). An Aramaic word of the approximate form gōlgōlthā meant ‘skull’. The idea of it being ‘a little hill’ is not known until the Bordeaux pilgrim imagined it was the place she visited in 333 CE, so this would not be known to Paul either. It is likely to have been called ‘the gōlgōlthā place’ because it was strewn with the skulls of executed people.[11] Why should Paul want to visit such a revolting place? If he went at the wrong time, such as Passover, he might well find not only a site of previous executions, but people screaming in pain as they were crucified too. Pilgrimages to such sites, and the idea they were sacred, appear to date from the time of Constantine onwards, when people were no longer crucified there.

Another astonishing example is Doherty imagining that Paul should have behaved like much later Christians seeking relics. He asks ‘What about the relics? Jesus’ clothes, the things he used in his everyday life, the things he touched?….If the Gospel accounts have any basis we would expect to find mention of all sorts of relics, genuine or fake: cups from the Last Supper, nails bearing Jesus’ flesh, thorns from the bloody crown, the centurion’s spear, pieces of cloth from the garments gambled for by the soldiers at the foot of the cross―indeed, just as we find a host of relics all through the Middle Ages…’[12] This is an extraordinary muddle which has just one point right: relics were characteristic of Christian piety much later. Otherwise, it seeks to impose upon Pauline Christianity the mediaeval Catholic religion which Doherty is supposed to have left.

Furthermore, Doherty cannot understand why relics of Jesus, pilgrimages to the Holy Land, and shrines there did not begin until the fourth century, and he declares, ‘The total absence of such things in the first hundred years of Christian correspondence is perhaps the single strongest argument for regarding the entire Gospel account of Jesus’ life and death as nothing but literary fabrication.’[13] Firstly, Doherty does not understand early Christian piety, which had no need of shrines or relics. Secondly, Doherty ignores the political situation. Until the fourth century, Christians were members of a persecuted religion, and neither major pilgrimages nor the foundation of shrines and churches in Israel were practical. In the fourth century, however, the emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. Then his mother, the empress Helena, made the first major Christian pilgrimage to the Holy Land, where she founded the first churches and shrines. It was she who guessed at what became the traditional sites of Golgotha and of Jesus’ tomb, and it was her son the emperor Constantine who ordered the building of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre over both of them.

Doherty’s attempts to understand what Paul did say are equally incompetent. Jesus’ death by crucifixion was historically straightforward, in the sense that crucifixion was a very common penalty inflicted by Roman authorities on slaves and provincials. It was well known as a very cruel form of death. It was a regrettably well known Roman penalty in Palestine. For example, after Herod the Great’s death in 4 BCE, there were a lot of rebellious upsets in Israel, and Publius Quinctilius Varus, the Roman governor of Syria, brought three legions down to Israel. After sacking Sepphoris, he went on to Jerusalem, where he crucified no less than 2,000 people (Jos. War. II, 75//Ant. XVII, 295). It was obvious to everyone that these events took place on earth.

Following his arrest, Jesus was handed over to the Roman governor, Pontius Pilatus, who condemned him to death by this standard penalty of crucifixion. The titulus on his cross said he was ‘king of the Jews’, Pilate’s term for a bandit, and he was crucified between two other men whom Pilate also condemned to crucifixion as bandits.[14] This is the story which would be well known in the Pauline churches, and which Doherty is determined to omit when considering how to interpret Paul’s epistles. In its place, he has a story in which Jesus was mythically ‘crucified’ by evil powers in the sublunar realm.

For this story, Doherty draws on ideas some of which are found in some Neoplatonic texts, but not in the New Testament nor in the Judaism from which early Christianity emerged. For example, Xenocrates (ca. 396-314 B.C.) already divided the universe into the realm above the moon (the supra-lunar) and the realm below the moon (the sub-lunar), and he believed that the sub-lunar realm was occupied by daemons. Scholars generally consider the Middle Platonic period to have begun c. 90 BCE with the work of Antiochus of Ascalon (c. 125–68 BCE). Following Xenocrates, Antiochus also expressed a belief in daemons, which inhabit the sub-lunar realm (the supra-lunar realm being reserved for the divine celestial bodies). There is however no evidence that such ideas were known in Judaism in Israel, the main source of Paul’s ideas, or that they were widespread enough to be generally known to his Gentile converts. Accordingly, it is of central importance that at this point Doherty reverses one of his major points of method. Having argued up to this point that Paul did not believe anything that he does not mention, he imagines that he could take for granted this mythical realm and the quite unparalleled notion of a spiritual crucifixion up there, without mentioning anything of the kind.

Doherty tries to produce evidence which he imagines makes the crucifixion of Jesus in the sublunar realm plausible. The first document which he mentions in this context is The Hypostasis of the Archons, a Gnostic work of the third century CE, which survives only in one Coptic ms from Nag Hammadi, though it is often assumed to have been originally written in Greek.[15] This refers to Paul as ‘the father of truth, the great apostle’, and at 87, 24 it does refer to the rulers (archontes). Doherty uses it to claim that ‘considering that the roots of Gnosticism go back before the establishment of an historical Jesus in the Gospels, we are once again witnessing an understanding of archontic rulers as spirit demons unassociated with any earthly princes, and thus a pointer to the older understanding in the time of Paul.’[16] This predating of selected parts of a text from the third century CE shows a total lack of historical sense. This document also has Adam created by ‘the rulers (archontes)’ (87, 25ff), and in typical late Gnostic fashion, it has the being who declared himself the one God be a blind being who was sinful, and it does not present the death of Jesus at all. It should be obvious that this source is too late and unPauline to be used to interpret the historical Paul.

Doherty correctly notes that evil spirits come into their own in the apocrypha and pseudepigrapha. He correctly refers to 1 Enoch, which was written well before the time of Paul. Next he refers confidently to the ‘1st century Testament of Solomon’.[17] This is much too early a date. Schürer-Vermes-Millar, in a section primarily the responsibility of Vermes, note correctly that its ‘complex textual history naturally makes it difficult to date.’ There is however good reason to think that ‘it was current in some form around A. D. 400’; further, ‘the archetype of all the full versions (incorporating the demonology) cannot have been put together before the early third century A. D.’[18] This means that it is quite ludicrous of Doherty to conclude on the basis of this evidence that ‘by Paul’s time they [i.e. the demons] have become vast powers that infest the heavens.’[19] There is no such idea in 1 Enoch, and the Testament of Solomon shows only that such ideas were believed by some people some 200 years after Paul’s time.

In addition to the Testament of Solomon, Doherty turns to the Questions of Ezra (Recension B). This is an even later document. It survives only in Armenian. The earliest surviving ms is dated to 1208 CE. This has been labelled recension A, and Recension B is known only from the seventeenth century. Stone was unable to determine whether it was originally composed in Armenian, which would certainly mean a very late date, or translated into Armenian from another language.[20] It is not however known anywhere outside the Armenian church. It is evident that it was not written until centuries after Paul’s life and death, so once again this is the wrong cultural background for understanding anything that Paul wrote or might have believed.

The next document to which Doherty turns is the Ascension of Isaiah. This is a composite work. In its present form it is a Christian work, which appears to have been written in Greek, only fragments of which survive. It utilised an older Jewish work, The Martyrdom of Isaiah, which was still known to Origen and the Apostolic Constitutions, but which has not survived except as used in the Christian Ascension of Isaiah. The whole text of this composite work survives only in Ethiopic. This translation was probably made sometime in the 4th-6th centuries. The oldest ms is however from the 15th century. A similar textual tradition is found in the first Latin translation, which survives only in fragments. A different textual tradition is found in the second Latin translation and in the Slavonic version, which contain only chs 6–11, generally known as the Vision of Isaiah, so they attest to its independent existence. The second Latin translation was first published in 1522, on the basis of a ms which is no longer known. The Slavonic translation exists in two forms, of which the second is a shorter version of the first. The earliest ms of the first version dates from the 12th century, and the translation was apparently made in the tenth or eleventh century.

It should be obvious from this that the date of anything resembling the text of what we can now read is difficult to determine. Knibb makes the entirely reasonable suggestion that the Vision of Isaiah ‘comes from the second century CE’, and gives correct reasons for disputing attempts to date it any earlier. Schürer-Vermes-Millar, in a section primarily the responsibility of Vermes, likewise suggest that ‘the Vision of Isaiah belongs probably to the second century A.D.’, while Charlesworth puts it ‘around the end of the second century A.D.’.[21] This document too is therefore too late in date to form evidence of the cultural environment in which Paul wrote to his converts. Doherty, however, simply announces that a community wrote this ‘vision’ ‘probably towards the end of the 1st century CE’.[22] There is no excuse for dating it so early, and it would still be too late for Paul.

I hope it is clear from this brief account that Doherty, despite being thought of as one of the most important of the mythicists, is unqualified, incompetent and hopelessly biased.

Dorothy Murdock, who writes also under the name of Acharya Sanning, has a significant following too. As well as her books, she has a blog. This includes “Who is Acharya S?”.[23] Here, describing herself with typical mythicist modesty as ‘the coolest chick on the planet’, she claims to have a BA degree in Classics, Greek Civilization, from Franklin and Marshall College, after which she completed postgraduate studies at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens. Nonetheless, when she gets to dating the Gospels, Murdock declares that ‘all of the canonical gospels seem to emerge at the same time – first receiving their names and number by Irenaeus around 180 AD/CE….If the canonical texts as we have them existed anywhere previously, they were unknown, which makes it likely that they were not composed until that time or shortly before, based on earlier texts.’[24] The criterion of not being mentioned in other texts is an important mythicist weapon. It embodies the fundamentalist assumption that the Gospels should have become sacred texts immediately, and therefore quoted by all extant Christian authors as fundamentalists quote the New Testament.

Fundamentalist belief is expressed for example by someone who calls themselves Paul Timothy, ‘The Holy Spirit has given to us four witnesses to The Holy Spirit has given to us four witnesses to the Life and teachings of Jesus: Mark, Matthew, Luke and John, the compilers and writers of the four Gospels. Each of the four Gospel writers lived while Jesus was on earth. Three of them knew him well, and Luke investigated the facts about Jesus (Luke 1:1-3). Thus, the four gospels are ‘eye-witness’ accounts, the strongest kind. All four writers included in their Gospel some of the same accounts about Jesus, and each one adds some accounts that the others left out.  Yet all agree; the four Gospels form a single true story.’[25]

This is fundamentalist falsehood from beginning to end. The Gospels are not eyewitness accounts. Moreover, they are not quoted as such in the relatively few Christian documents surviving from before the time of Irenaeus, whereas the Old Testament is, from which mythicists draw their conclusion that the canonical Gospels were unknown. Justin Martyr, however, writing in the middle of the second century, refers not to the Gospel according to Mark, but to the apomnēmoneumata of Peter. The Greek word apomnēmoneumata is usually translated ‘memoirs’ in Justin, whether or not they are said to be ‘of Peter’, ‘of the apostles’, or ‘of his apostles and their followers’. It has however a somewhat wider range of meaning, and does not necessarily carry the connotation of the person having written the apomnēmoneumata himself. One reference to Peter’s ‘memoirs’ has the sons of Zebedee called ‘Boanerges, which is “sons of thunder”’ (Dial. 106). The word ‘Boanerges’ is otherwise known only from Mk 3.17, where Mark says that Jesus gave Jacob and John, the sons of Zebedee, ‘the name “Boanērges”, which is “sons of thunder”’. This reference is not merely unique. The term ‘Boanerges’ is a mistaken attempt to transliterate into Greek letters the Aramaic words benē re‘em, which mean ‘sons of thunder’.  The possibility that two independent sources made almost identical mistakes in the transliteration of these words is negligible. It follows that by ‘the memoirs of Peter’ Justin meant something at least very like what we call the Gospel of Mark.

Mythicists also presuppose that the attestation of the Gospels somehow ought to be similar to the attestation of modern documents written in cultures where writing is normal, and books are printed. This is why, as mythicists try to date the Gospels as late as possible, one of the reasons they use is the date of surviving manuscripts. In doing this, however, they show no understanding of the nature of ancient documents and their transmission, which was very different from the writing of books in the modern world.[26]

There are in fact far more copies of the Gospels surviving from relatively soon after they were written than is the case of most works from the Greco-Roman world, or ancient Judaism. The reasons why fewer survive than might have done in the stories which mythicists invent are twofold: relatively few copies were made of any writing before the invention of printing in the mediaeval period, and there were a number of disasters in the destruction of books when libraries were destroyed, and in the Christian case, in persecutions by the Roman state.

For example, Eusebius helped to build up an excellent library in Caesarea.[27] Eusebius had there a copy of the work of Papias, Bishop of  Hierapolis in the early second century, An Exposition of the Lord’s Oracles (Logia), and he quotes important information from it (Eus., H.E. III, 39, 1-7, 14-17). The library was however destroyed. The last reliable mention of it is by Jerome, though it may not have been destroyed until the Arab invasion in the seventh century. In a world where there were not many copies of old books, this destruction was a major disaster, and there should be no doubt that many Christian books were lost in this way. We should contrast the creative fiction of Acharya, who comments on the disappearance of Papias’ work: ‘It is inexplicable that such a monumental work by an early Christian father was “lost”, except that it had to be destroyed because it revealed the Savior as absolutely non-historical.’[28] This comment has no connection with the reality of the ancient world, and Acharya’s ‘reason’ for its destruction is nothing better than malicious invention.

Another mythicist is Canadian journalist Tom Harpur (1929- ), who says with more mythicist modesty that his ‘books, videos and columns have made him a compelling spiritual leader for every generation and all faiths.’[29] He was brought up as a fundamentalist Christian, and ordained priest in the Anglican Church of Canada in 1956, in accordance with his father’s wishes and demands. As a journalist on the Toronto Star (1954-84), he did not have to verify everything as scholars do, and he has ended up never offering evidence for what he chooses to believe. He does however pay tribute to his main sources: Gerald Massey (1828-1907), and Alvin Boyd Kuhn (1880-1963). Massey was a second-rate English poet who also became an amateur Egyptologist. Kuhn was a theosophist who therefore held large-scale false beliefs about the modern value of supposedly ancient traditions, many of which were not ancient at all.

Among his many mistakes, Harpur comments, ‘Significantly, both Massey and Kuhn – and other authorities–testify that the surface of the coffin lid of the mummified Osiris (every deceased person was referred to as the Osiris) constituted the table of the Egyptian’s cult’s Last Supper or Eucharist. It was the board on which the mortuary meals were served. The coffin bore the hieroglyphic equivalent for KRST. Massey connects KRST with the Greek word Christos, messiah, or Christ.He says, “Say what you will or believe what you may, there is no other origin for Christ the anointed than ‘Horus the Karast’, or ‘anointed son of God the Father.’” Nonetheless, he notes correctly that ‘Modern Egyptologists dispute this’, which was already true when he wrote it, and instead of giving a good reason for following a scholar who was incompetent when he wrote before the advent of modern critical scholarship and is now hopelessly out of date as well, HarpurHhh quotes his authority as if it were decisive, just like a fundamentalist Christian quoting scripture.[30] Nor is there any excuse for describing Massey and Kuhn as ‘authorities’.

The American Christian scholar Ward Gasque consulted a number of modern Egyptologists, and discovered that the Egyptian KRST is the word for “burial”, so it is a very appropriate word to turn up on Egyptian coffins, and has no connection with the Jewish and Christian term ‘Christ’.[31] This is another illustration of the complete incompetence of both Massey and Kuhn, and of Harpur’s total lack of any sense of reality in what he has taken over from them.

Harpur gives some indication of what he felt he had found in these writers when he comments, ‘Massey’s books and Kuhn’s four chief works….held me spellbound….the more I read, the more I was convinced that what these men were saying had the ring of truth…[32] This appears to be part of Harpur’s conversion process, since he gives nothing approaching evidence supported with argument. When he does quote someone with expertise, he ignores the date of the relevant sources. For example, he quotes the Egyptologist Eric Hornung for the Egyptian fathers, followed in due course by other Christians, taking over imagery of Isis, Osiris and Horus.[33] They did, but this was a real fact centuries after the time of the historical Jesus, not evidence that he did not exist in the first century CE.

This is only one of myriad examples of mythicists creating havoc with supposed ‘parallels’. Murdock put the central point in a nutshell without realising that from a scholarly point of view, it is not merely sinful, but a mortal sin rather than a peccadillo. Commenting on the notion that Horus was ‘baptised’ by Anup/Inpu, she notes that the comparison ‘between Anup and John has been extrapolated for a variety of reasons’, and adds that ‘“Christian” terminology has been utilized to describe what was found in the ancient Egyptian texts and monuments, as well as elsewhere around the Roman empire during the era.’[34] This is central to the way in which most of the so-called parallels to the life and teaching of Jesus have been manufactured by mythicists. In actuality, Horus was not thought to have been baptised by Anup/Inpu, who was supposed to have been a jackal-headed Egyptian deity, not a Jewish man, and Inpu was not beheaded either.

Murdock also discusses pre-Christian use of the Greek words baptō and baptizō. They both meant ‘dip’, but not in any meaningful sense ‘baptise’, as Murdock alleges. She quotes a passage of Nicander, which is about pickling vegetables, and has nothing to do with baptism, to which it is accordingly irrelevant. She even discusses ‘the act of baptizing the vegetable’ which is as ridiculous as any ‘parallel’ I have come across.[35] Then, as now, people did not baptize vegetables, but they did wash, boil, and immerse them. Nicander was really discussing boiling vegetables and then immersing them in vinegar, to do what we call ‘pickle’ them. This is a striking example of the inappropriate use of Christian terminology to describe all sorts of things, in spurious attempts to make them sound more alike.

The internet, for which these pseudo-scholars write, has become a home of mendacity, including many outpourings of hatred for scholars. One example is blogger Neil Godfrey, an Australian who was a baptised member of the Worldwide Church of God for 22 years, so he belonged to a hopelessly fundamentalist organisation which holds critical scholarship in contempt.  He converted to ‘atheism’ later, so he has had two conversion experiences, and this means that his contempt for evidence and argument as means of reaching decisions about important matters is doubly central to his life.

Godfrey claims to have ‘a BA and post graduate Bachelor of Educational Studies, both at the University of Queensland, and a post graduate Diploma in Arts (Library and Information Science) from Charles Sturt University near Canberra, Australia’.[36] He has worked as a librarian. It is extraordinary, therefore, that he seems to be quite incapable of presenting information accurately. One of his statements followed on a shocking earthquake in New Zealand: ‘I’m a librarian, but I never see or touch a book’.[37] Perhaps this is why he seems incapable of gathering information available in books with any semblance of accuracy.

Godfrey condemns biblical scholars as no better than ‘silly detectives’. In a post headed ‘Biblical historians make detectives look silly’[38], he did not give proper references, and referred back later to his post like this: ‘Biblical historians who research the foundations of Christianity in the Gospels have sometimes compared their “historical research” work with that of detectives or criminal investigators….. Only by lazy assumptions about their sources can biblical “historians” declare Jesus’ crucifixion a “fact of history”….In other words, Paula Fredriksen is but one of a host of biblical “historians” who “do history” according to the analogy of the silly detectives in my earlier post’ [23rd November, 2010].

Godfrey’s earlier post said that Fredriksen ‘is one scholar who did “respond” to something Doherty had written, but her response demonstrated that she at no point attempted to read Doherty’s piece seriously. One might even compare her responses to those of a naughty schoolgirl who has no interest in the content of the lesson, believing the teacher to be a real dolt, and who accordingly seeks to impress her giggly “know-it-all” classmates by interjecting the teacher with smart alec rejoinders at any opportunity.’ Godfrey seems to have no idea that his gross personal rudeness is no substitute for a scholarly response, which is what anyone seriously interested in truth would have provided.

One blogger cited by both Doherty and Acharya is Steven Carr. Doherty cites him to dispose of the evidence that Josephus mentions Jesus at Ant. XX, 200, where he describes Jacob as ‘the brother of Jesus called Christ, Jacob his name’, which is as clear as could be. Mythicists, however, do not wish to believe this.[39] Similarly, Murdock noticed that the mss of the New Testament are not inerrant, as every critical scholar knows. Neither she nor Carr, however, offers a proper critical discussion.[40]

I am well known to some people for my work on Aramaic sources behind the synoptic Gospels, for careful scholarship, and for always telling the truth as I see it.[41] On the internet, however, I have been accused by Blogger Godfrey, Blogger Carr and others of total incompetence, omitting main points and telling lies. For example, Blogger Godfrey, in a blog entitled with his customary politesse, Roll over Maurice Casey: Latin, not Aramaic, explains Mark’s bad Greek, not only drew attention to a certain proportion of these ‘Latinisms’, which would have been reasonable, but also declared that they nullified the evidence of Aramaic influence on Mark.[42] This is quite incompetent, which is why, as far as I know, it had not previously been suggested. Nor is Greek which contains Latin loanwords for Roman objects ‘bad’ Greek, any more than we speak ‘bad’ English when we say we went to a restaurant. Mark’s Latinisms, including loanwords, in no way undermine the importance of Mark’s Aramaisms, which Blogger Godfrey is not learned enough to see, and determined to ignore.

Blogger Godfrey does not refer to any learned scholarship, but to an elementary piece from a second-rate and very conservative American Christian college, formerly Atlantic Baptist College, then (1996) Atlantic Baptist University, now named Crandall University.  It does not have any outstanding New Testament scholars on its staff. This is yet another piece of evidence that Blogger Godfrey is quite incapable of leaving his fundamentalist Christian background behind, in spite of his conversion to an equally dogmatic form of atheism. The list of Latinisms provided by Crandall ‘University’ includes loanwords, by which standard it is incomplete, but otherwise satisfactory. They are all included in the more extensive list provided by Gundry in his standard conservative commentary.[43]

Blogger Godfrey does not mention that the Introduction from which he quotes also argues that Mark’s first language was Aramaic. Blogger Carr commented,

‘Casey, of course, knows perfectly well that there are Latin loan words in ‘Mark’….Naturally, he is a True Biblical Scholar so does not inform his readers that there are any Latin loan words in ‘Mark’…As it would detract from the idea that there were Aramaic sources for Greek, detectable by the bad Greek, Casey does not even mention the prescence (sic!) of Latin loan words….A real scholar mentions facts which might seem to other scholars to put his work into question, and attempts to answer those questions…This is what I am used to when I see scientists writing. I naively took it for granted that all scholars in all fields had the same sorts of standards as the lowliest scientific researcher into the memory of mice…. I now have entered a world where True Bible Scholars simply ignore whatever does not fit their ideas.’[44]

Everything is wrong with this. It is not true that I did not even mention the presence of Latin loanwords. I discussed the ones which I thought were of genuine historical significance, and I gave a significant amount of Roman background to some of these, where I thought this was of historical significance. I therefore discussed legiōn and Hērōdianoi at some length, as well as, more briefly, denarius, and centurion.[45]

Blogger Carr’s comments on scholarly practice are irrelevant too, apart from his crude and misleading use of the term ‘bad’ Greek. The idea that Mark’s Latinisms, understood broadly to include his Latin loanwords, somehow negate the evidence of his use of Aramaic sources is not a theory put forward by reputable scholars: it is a mistake by blogger Godfrey. Learned articles on the memory of mice or anything else do not discuss the outpourings of incompetent bloggers. Nor can they discuss anything suggested after their articles were published: blogger Godfrey’s notion that ‘Latin, not Aramaic, explains Mark’s bad Greek’ was not available to me when I wrote, precisely because no-one else had been incompetent and foolish enough to suggest it.

I hope this is sufficient to indicate that the mythicist view is based on ineducable ignorance, prejudice and absolute contempt for anything like learned scholarship.

The only reasonably qualified scholar to become a mythicist is Robert M. Price. Price was born in Mississippi in 1954. After early involvement in a fundamentalist Baptist church, he went on to become a leader in the Montclair State College chapter of the Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship. He was trained at Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary. Its statement of faith includes the following: ‘The sixty-six canonical books of the Bible as originally written were inspired of God, hence free from error….’ Its Mission Statement begins, ‘To encourage students to become knowledgeable of God’s inerrant Word, competent in its interpretation, proclamation and application in the contemporary world.’

It follows that after a fundamentalist upbringing, Price was also processed in a fundamentalist institution where critical scholarship was held in contempt. He went on to do a Ph.D. in Systematic Theology at Drew University in Madison, New Jersey. This was awarded in 1981. He also read Ph.D. in New Testament at Drew University, which was awarded in 1993. He was listed as professor of theology and scriptural studies at Coleman Theological Seminary and professor of biblical criticism at the Center for Inquiry Institute, as well as a fellow of the Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion and the Jesus Seminar.

Price is alone among mythicists in that there is no doubt that he was a qualified New Testament scholar. He therefore bears a most heavy responsibility for the falsehoods which he has promoted. Perhaps his most important book is The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man.[46] What is important about it is that it lends an assumption of scholarship to outpourings of falsehood. These include hopelessly late dates for the Gospels, with Mark being pushed into the second century. Price first declares that it must have been written after 70 CE, on the false assumption that apocalypses, which most of it is not, are always written after the events which they are supposed to predict. Mark’s predictions are not however accurate enough to have been written after the event.[47] Price subsequently relied on Detering, who, continuing with the assumption that there cannot be any predictions in the Gospels, noticed that Mark 13 is not accurate enough to have been a prediction of the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE after the event, and claimed that Hadrian setting up his statue in the Temple was the reason for the ‘prediction’ of the Abomination of Desolation (Matt. 24.15//Mk. 13.14).[48]

Price’s treatment of New Testament narratives has two other major features conventional among mythicists. One is to continue with conservative or even fundamentalist exegesis. For example, he discusses Mark 9.1: ‘Amen I say to you that there are some of those standing here who will not taste of death until they have seen the kingdom of God come in power.’ Price declares that ‘all interpreters admit that this prediction must have the Parousia in mind.’ All interpreters have not adopted this incorrect exegesis for the very good reason that the saying mentions the kingdom of God, an important feature of the teaching of Jesus, whereas belief in the Parousia was created by the early church after Jesus’ death.[49]

Another major feature of mythicism is to make fun of New Testament stories which they used to believe in, and still take literally. For example, Price discusses the story of Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist. On that occasion, Jesus heard a voice which he believed came from God, ‘You are my beloved Son, in you I am well pleased’ (Mk 1.11). Price follows the received text, ‘in whom’, rather than ‘in you’, which assimilated to Matthew, but which is not, as he claims, the reading of Luke. He then declares that it is ‘cobbled together from three Old Testament passages’, as if a major prophet could not imagine a heavenly voice speaking in scriptural terms. Price’s scriptural passages, however, are firstly Ps. 2.7, which says ‘My son thou’, the form in which Jesus would have known the text, translated into Greek in the LXX as ‘My son art thou’, as the text would have been known to anyone writing creatively in Greek. Price’s second passage is Isa. 42.1, which says ‘Behold, my servant, I uphold him, my chosen, my soul delights in him’, for which the LXX has ‘Jacob my servant, I come to his aid, Israel my chosen, my soul received him’. Price’s third passage is Gen. 22.12, which has nothing more than God referring to Isaac as ‘your son, your beloved’. He therefore heads firstly for LXX, which is on the same lines, and simply has God say to Abraham about Isaac, ‘You did not spare your beloved son because of me’. Price therefore heads for what he incompetently calls ‘the Targums’, according to which, when Isaac looked up into an open heaven, a voice said ‘Behold, two chosen ones’. Price does not however quote any Targums, but only an essay in English by Stegner![50]

Price then concludes that Mark’s voice is ‘not historical, unless one wishes to imagine God sitting with his Hebrew Psalter, Greek Septuagint, and Aramaic Targum in front of him, deciding what to crib. Only then does it come to seem ridiculous’. Indeed, but as I commented before, ‘It is Price who has manipulated it to make it seem ridiculous.’ He has not written serious scholarship at all.[51]

It follows that Price has not made good or reasonable use of the New Testament qualifications which he once obtained. The results of his work are no better than those of more obviously ignorant mythicists.


The third and last essay in this series has been written by Stephanie Louise Fisher. Steph came here as an outstanding mature student from the University of Victoria, New Zealand, where she obtained exceptionally brilliant first class degrees including study in history, anthropology, sociology, classics as well as music and other things reflecting her eclectic interests and lateral mind.  She worked as a research fellow to Jim Veitch in the history of the Lloyd Geering heresy trial. While in my opinion there was never any question of her not obtaining one, she won the fiercely competitive overseas research scholarship and was offered the Commonwealth Scholarship twice.  While she could have chosen to go to any first class independent university on earth, she chose to come to England because of her specialist focus on the Double Tradition.  Thus James Crossley, Steph, and I have worked well together, and we have had many debates, while becoming genuine friends over the past few years.

While Steph has been here, she has effectively worked as my research assistant too, without being in any sense subordinate to me. She has been wonderful working both on my last book, Jesus of Nazareth, and on material about mythicists. She is, as the above comments indicate, a scholar with very broad interests, and she works on many projects simultaneously. We do have reputable publishers already interested in her work on the Double Tradition, so we look forward to this task being completed, because New Testament scholarship needs it so much, and she is the only person known to me who can complete it.

Maurice Casey, Emeritus Professor of New Testament Studies, University of Nottingham.

[1] The major generally available books were S. J. Case, The Historicity of Jesus: A Criticism of the Contention that Jesus Never Lived, a Statement of the Evidence for His Existence, an Estimate of His Relation to Christianity (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1912; 2nd edn, 1928); M. Goguel, Jesus the Nazarene: Myth or History? (1925. Trans. F. Stevens. London/New York: Unwin/Appleton, 1926. With a new introduction by R. Joseph Hoffmann, Amherst, New York: Prometheus, 2006).

[2] E. Doherty, Jesus: Neither God Nor ManThe Case for a Mythical Jesus (Ottawa: Age of Reason, 2009), pp. vii, viii, referring back to http://jesuspuzzle.humanists.net/Critiquesrefut1.htm, which I can no longer access, and E. Doherty, The Jesus Puzzle: Did Christianity Begin with a Mythical Christ? (Ottawa: Canadian Humanist Publications, 1999).

[3] Doherty, Jesus Neither God nor Man, p. 413.

[4] For a summary of the debate, with bibliography, e.g. J. S. Kloppenborg, ‘The Theodotos Synagogue Inscription and the Problem of First-Century Synagogue Buildings’ in J. H. Charlesworth (ed.), Jesus and Archaeology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006), pp. 236-82; and for his immediate reaction, Sanders, Jewish Law From Jesus to the Mishnah, pp. 341-3, nn. 28-9.

[5] Doherty, Jesus Neither God nor Man, p. 15.

[6] Doherty, Jesus Neither God nor Man, pp. 316-7, quoting R. H. Stein, The Synoptic Problem: an Introduction (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1984), p. 102.  I have not otherwise noted a copy published before 1987: there was a second edn. in 2001.

[7] J. S. Kloppenborg, The Formation of Q. Trajectories in Ancient Wisdom (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1987); J. S. Kloppenborg Verbin, Excavating Q. The History and Setting of the Sayings Gospel (Minneapolis/Edinburgh: Fortress/T&T Clark, 2000).

[8] P. M. Casey, An Aramaic Approach to Q: Sources for the Gospels of Matthew and Luke (SNTSMS 122. Cambridge: CUP, 2002).

[9] Hall, E.T. Beyond Culture (New York: Doubleday 1976).

[10] Doherty, Jesus Neither God nor Man, pp. 664, 198: cf. further below.

[11] Cf. now Casey, Jesus of Nazareth, pp. 445–6.

[12] Doherty, Jesus Neither God nor Man, pp. 80, 82 (my italics).

[13] Doherty, Jesus Neither God nor Man, p. 82.

[14] For a historical account for the general reader, see Casey, Jesus of Nazareth, pp. 425-48.

[15] For an English Translation by Bentley Layton, with a very brief introduction by R. A. Bullard, see J. M. Robinson (general ed.) and Members of the Coptic Gnostic Library Project of the Institute for Antiquity and Christianity, Claremont, California, The Nag Hammadi Library in English (4th edn. Leiden: Brill, 1996), pp. 161-9.

[16] Doherty, Jesus: Neither God Nor Man, p. 109.

[17] Doherty, Jesus: Neither God Nor Man, p. 109.

[18] Schürer-Vermes-Millar, vol. III.1, p. 373.

[19] Doherty, Jesus: Neither God Nor Man, p. 109.

[20] M.E. Stone, in Charlesworth (ed.), Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, vol I, p. 592.

[21] M.A. Knibb, in Charlesworth (ed.), Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, vol 2, pp. 149–50; Schürer-Vermes-Millar, vol. III.1, p. 338 n.8; Charlesworth, Pseudepigrapha and Modern Research, p. 125.

[22] Doherty, Jesus: Neither God Nor Man, p. 119.

[24] Murdock, Who was Jesus? p. 82.

[26] See especially H.Y. Gamble, Books and Readers in the Early Church: A History of Early Christian Texts (New Haven: Yale Univ., 1995); A. R. Millard, Reading and Writing in the Time of Jesus (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic, 2000).

[27] See Gamble, Books and Readers in the Early Church, pp. 155-60.

[28] Acharya, Christ Conspiracy, (Adventures Unlimited Press, 1999) p. 227.

[30] Harpur, Pagan Christ, (Thomas Allen and Son Ltd, 2005) p. 101, with p. 224, n.6, again without any proper detailed reference to the work of Massey: see the regrettable comments of Massey, Ancient Egypt, pp. 186-248. The quotation is from p. 219.

[32] T. Harpur, Born Again: My Journey from Fundamentalism to Freedom (Toronto: Thomas Allen, 2011), p. 214.

[33] Harpur, Born Again, p. 215.

[34] Murdock, Christ in Egypt, (Stellar House Publishing, 2009) p. 233.

[35] Murdock, Christ in Egypt, p. 245 n. 2.

[39] Doherty, Jesus: Neither God Nor Man p. 571 with p. 771 n. 221, referring to Carr commenting on Josephus.

[40] D. M. Murdock, Who was Jesus?: Fingerprints of the Christ (Seattle: Stellar House Publishing, 2007), p. 224, with p. 268, referring to Carr, ‘Textual Reliability of the New Testament’, on Carr at http://www.bowness.demon.co.uk/reli2.htm.

[41] Cf. James G. Crossley (ed.), Judaism, Jewish Identities and the Gospel Tradition: Essays in Honour of Maurice Casey, (London: Equinox, 2010).

[42] http://vridar.wordpress.com/2010.12/06/roll-over-maurice-casey-latin-not-aramaic-explains-marks-bad-greek/

[43] R.H. Gundry, Mark: A Commentary on His Apology for the Cross (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), pp. 1043-5.[1]

[44]  http://vridar.wordpress.com/2010/12/06/roll-over-maurice-casey-latin-not-aramaic-explains-marks-bad-greek/#comment-13040

[45] Casey, Jesus of Nazareth, pp. 242-3, 341, 422-3, 450.

[46] R. M. Price, The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man: How Reliable is the Gospel Tradition?

(Amherst, New York: Prometheus, 2003).

[47] Casey, Jesus of Nazareth, pp. 69-71.

[48] H. Detering, ‘The Synoptic Apocalypse (Mark 13 par): A Document from the Time of Bar Kochba’, Journal of Higher Criticism 7 (2000), pp. 161-200: cf. Casey, Jesus of Nazareth, pp. 33-5.

[49] Price, Shrinking Son of Man, p. 32; see Casey, Jesus of Nazareth, pp. 34, 212-6, 219-21, 374-7, 384, 389, 484.

[50] Price, Shrinking Son of Man, p. 120-21; see Casey, Jesus of Nazareth, pp. 36-7.

[51] See further, Casey, Jesus of Nazareth, pp. 35-8.

The Parable of the Dumb Lawyer

A few years ago I participated in a colloquium at UCLA that included, besides myself, two other academics who studied various aspects of the origins of Christianity, and a lawyer, somewhat unjustifiably famous for battling “religious theists” [sic].  The latter category he habitually referred to as “religion” or “supernaturalism,” which in his head amounted to the same thing.


With a kind of cocksureness that always comes naturally to the malinformed, he told me minutes before delivering his spiel that he welcomed the opportunity to “set these religion scholars straight.”  I muttered something agreeable about the nature of scholarship–always being a willingness to accept correction, though privately I have always thought that Jesus’ words about lawyers are among the wisest things he is ever reckoned to have said.

At the end of his discussion, the three of us sat quietly.  Carol Backhos, a UCLA professor of Judaic Studies, who had kept track of the number of times the speaker had equated religion and supernaturalism in his talk, asked him fairly pointedly what he thought the three of us did to earn a living. Her implication was that if our work corresponded to what he thought we did, we should not be permitted near the gates of a university.

Reuven Firestone, a leading expert on medieval Judaism and Islam, pressed him a bit further, asking whether he could make the distinction between “supernaturalism” as a view of the world that could only have become intelligible in modernity, especially through science, and a view of the world that would not have included it–indeed would have been unintelligible–even to educated people–prior to the “dawn” of science.  He asked especially about Spinoza’s view on the self-contradictoriness of miracles as proof of God, as an illustration.


As the hapless panel moderator, my final word was that he (the lawyer) should understand that “providentialim” and “supernaturalism” are useful to historians only in charting superficial descriptions in history, and that all serious historians share a methodological disbelief in ghosts, spirits, fate, kairos, gods and divinities causing anything to happen. Consider, I tamely said, that in Shakespeare’s great tragedy of the name Julius Caesar dies in Act III but is still considered causative  as a literary device until the end: “O Julius Caesar, thou art mighty yet!/ Thy spirit walks abroad, and turns our swords/ In our own proper entrails (5.3.94-96).”  (Most students of historiography know the problem as Caesar’s ghost–explaining something that really happens in terms of forces you know aren’t really there but may be in the minds of people with a different disposition towards cause and effect.) Supernaturalism, I said, is not a word that scholars often use as equivalent to religion in modern study and not even a likely descriptor that a religious person would use about himself.

For different reasons, mainly related to discussions of scientific naturalism as a term in need of an opposite, philosophers sometimes revert to it and an older generation of anthropologists used it “descriptively.” Historians, on the other hand, have been ferociously critical of its use.

E B Tylor: The Bogeyman theory of religion

The lawyer mumbled something unhelpful and sat down, plausibly thinking that the scholars had not learned much about religion from him.

Those of us who teach the study of religion at college level battle two assumptions: first, the assumption of many students that courses in religion are religious–hearkening back to an era of undertrained divinity school-trained lecturers who were very often protestant ministers themselves; and second, the often grotesque ignorance of our colleagues in the academy, and not just in the sciences, about what is actually studied in a religious studies curriculum.  Academic apartheid is another name for what universities call “disciplines.”

I have no statistic to prove the following point, but I would guess that courses bearing the “Religious Studies” label are probably among the least understood in the average college catalogue.  And it isn’t the fault of students or colleagues in other disciplines that this is the case.  Religious studies “professionals” are sometimes the worst spokesmen when it comes to explaining what they are doing in the classroom, inviting the suspicion that they are doing priestcraft and witchery and alchemy instead of more useful subjects. Or perhaps, though I hope not, this reluctance to explain, defend and inform comes from the esoteric nature of religion itself.

Beyond this, some of the best programs in the field, such as the longstanding one at the University of Chicago, share a common designation with the worst, such as the ones at self-described ‘Christian” universities like Liberty in Virginia or Oral Roberts in Oklahoma–and these, alas, are not the worst examples of Christian apologetics masquerading as serious academic study.  Einstein once said of the physics of his generation that “A perfection of means, and confusion of aims, seems to be our main problem.”  In religious studies both the means and the aims are often not made clear.

So who can blame our lawyer friend for being confused?  I sometimes like to say to advanced students taking methodology or historiography courses that religions are morphologically similar and anatomically different. They exhibit common structural features in widely divergent ways. Some have priesthoods, some have brotherhoods, others only monks or congregants, others only inquirers.  They meet in churches, mosques, tents, open fields, temples and not at all. They resound in highly structured public celebrations, ecstatic and emotional outbursts, and total silence. They base their practices on sacred books, private revelations, only conscience, believe in one God, thousands, and none, and produce codes ranging from axioms and laws to questions and puzzles. Some see a complete rift between the world of experience and the world in which a divine spirit suffuses reality.  Some believe these worlds are continuous or periodical.  Some see the natural world as the only world there is.

“In the woods, we return to reason and faith. There I feel that nothing can befal me in life – no disgrace, no calamity (leaving me my eyes) which nature cannot repair. Standing on the bare ground – my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinte space, – all mean egoism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball. I am nothing. I see all. The currents of the universal Being circulate through me; I am a part or particle of God (R. W. Emerson, Nature)

There have been famous attempts to solidify structural points of similarity in religion, notably by scholars like Ninian Smart and anthropologist Clifford Geertz–both of whose contributions are indispensable reading for anyone who really wants to know about the nature of religion at a methodological level.  But the “essence” of religion is notoriously difficult to capture and even harder to describe. A lot of what we do in a first year religious studies course is giggle at definitions proposed by well-intentioned scholars a hundred years ago. Here, to save space, they will be nameless.

Smart thought that religions (“religion” is a less adequate collective noun) express themselves in seven more or less discrete ways which he labeled “dimensions”: experiential, emotional, pratical, ritual, legal, and mythic (or narrative) forms.  By this he simply meant that religions tell stories (myths) that either stem from or result in practices that satisfy an emotional need or moral situation.  In some cases, they claim that this story is rooted in history: Christianity, Judaism, and Islam do this.  In other cases, especially in the Asian traditions, the seminal stories may just be stories–myths whose meaning lay in their ability to form a cohesive community–a church, or some other institutional structure dedicated to propagating the values and teachings of a particular faith. A religion’s success or failure is the aggregate of the way in which the dimensions contribute to its survival.

Ninian Smart

Smart also believed that there were competing worldviews that were not strictly speaking religious but which satisfied the same objectives and exhibited many of the same dimensions.  These secular worldviews included nationalism with its myth of the history of a nation (often highly mythologized for politial purposes over centuries–Roma Aeterna, Mother Russia, Pioneer America, Albion.)  Political and economic philosophies, like Marxism and capitalism, also exhibited many of the same characteristics, especially with respect to the essentially conservative (i.e. tradition-preserving) nature of the institutions and legal systems such philosophies create.

Certain parts of Smart’s “seven-dimensions” seem a bit strained in the contemporary context, but they still represent a useful conceptual entry-level model for coping with the complex characteristics that “religion” exhibits.

Descriptively, the better models were proposed by Clifford Geertz (who died in 2006 at the age of eighty) and whose work on the etiology of culture has been priceless for all areas of the field of religious studies.  Focusing more on family resemblances and what he termed “thick descriptions” (comprehensive analysis of why people do what they do, rather than, as Smart, the fact that they do it), Geertz saw religion and ritual essentially as  “The drive to make sense out of experience, to give it form and order, [something] evidently as real and pressing as the more familiar biological needs…”


Any attempt to make sense of the term “religion” after Geertz that does not take the functionalist approach into account, even if it does not depend on it, is simply deficient.  The same would be true of the essential work of Michael Gilsenan (NYU) on Islam, and a former “superior” of mine at Heidelberg, Gerd Theissen on the sociology of early Christian communities. Theissen is especially interesting as an example of a scholar who sees his primary work as that of a theologian trying to grapple with the approaches sociology has imposed upon various inquiries into the beginnings of the Christian church.

I have often complained on this blog about the way in which otherwise well-spoken people such as my lawyer-friend use terms like “religion,” “superstition,” and “supernaturalism” as though the analysis of these terms reached a dead-end in the ninetenth century, when science dethroned theology and the Church seemed not to notice.  In fact religion only began to be understood in the nineteenth century, and science–or rather methods of investigation common to a scientific and skeptical outlook–helped us to do it.

What is less commonly understood is that much of what made the reign of science possible in the first place are theological programs of the eighteenth and nineteenth century (and habits of inquiry that go back much further in time) that cleaned the house of “supernaturalist” thinking in the interest of saving a ship that was sinking in the sea of modernity.  The names, ideas and work of the men and women who participated in that project are almost (but not quite) as deserving of mention as names like Darwin and Faraday.

F D Maurice

I can tell you that it is increasingly embarrassing to see that the ineffectiveness of people in my own field in explaining what they do for a living to people unacquainted with the basic Wissenschaft in religious studies has now resulted in a debate that would be far more interesting if people would update it from 1765 to 2011.  There is simply no excuse for dumb lawyers anymore.

Daumier: Two Lawyers

Is “God” Invulnerable?

Paul Tillich died while I was still in high school. But the embers of his theological revolution–equivalent in theology to Bultmann’s in biblical studies–were still warm by the time I got to Harvard Divinity School, where he taught from 1955 to 1962. I read him assiduously, ran yellow highlighters dry illuminating “key” passages, and wrote the word “Yes!” in the margins more often than Molly Bloom gasps it in the last chapter of Ulysses.

It isn’t that I now regard Tillich as less profound  than I did three decades ago.  It’s that I now realize he was methadone for religion- recoverers. His key works–The Religious Situation, The Shaking of the Foundations, the multipart, unbearably dense Systematic Theology (especially disliked in Britain when it appeared), and Dynamics of Faith–reveal a soul committed to taking the sting out of what many theologians before Tillich called “the modern situation.”

The modern situation was basically scientific knowledge–the growing conviction that what we see is all we get, and that if we can’t see it we just need better techniques for seeing it.  The glaring exception to this optimism, this faith in scientific know-how–a 1950’s word–was God, about whom it was widely supposed that no lens powerful enough, no jet-propulsion engine fast enough and no controlled experiment sophisticated enough was ever going to discover him.  God was safe, in a weird kind of way, because he was, to use the catchphrase of the time, “Wholly Other.”

There were two ways of dealing with the vulnerability of God to the modern situation.  One was to say that God is immune from scientific discovery because he is known only through faith. Bring on your historical criticism, your naturalistic assaults, your so-called “facts,” your rock and roll. The bigness of God just shows the puniness of your methods.  To try this course, however, entailed a repudiation of the idea that God can be known rationally and that faith and reason were compatible rather than hostile modes of determining truth–a rejection, in other words, of the whole previous history of theology, especially Catholic theology.

The other way was to exploit post-positivism, or a theological construction of “Popperism.”  This tactic relied on the philosophical premise that while God can be postulated on reasonable grounds (analogically, for example: shoes have makers so universes have creators) “he” cannot actually be falsified (we know where the shoemaker’s house is; we see him going to it at five o’clock; but we don’t know where God lives as he is thought to be invisible).  We can’t quite be certain that he doesn’t exist, on the same grounds we can’t falsify the existence of anything we haven’t seen, and some propositions (or assertions) about God are tenable, even if implausible, when alternative explanations are considered.

Part of this “propositional” strategy hearkened back to ontology, the idea that God is not directly experienced or instantiated in creation and so in some sense must be greater than it, prior to it, or transcendent, in a way that beggars ordinary description. Theology had never succeeded in reconciling the claim of biblical revelation with the “classical” attributes of god’s aseity and impassibility (i.e., a supreme being cannot change or suffer–“he” is what he is, as Yahweh sniffs in Exodus 3.14), so uncertainty was a kind of safe epistemological cloud to wrap discussion in–in addition to which it had a certain (unrelated) currency in atomic physics which leant it a kind of dubious respectability. This approach preserved the bare notion of the rationality of religious belief, leaving theology room to exploit the doctrine that Christianity is all about faith and hope, the “certainty of things unseen” (Hebrews 11.1).

Faith seeking understanding?

Both positions were so intellectually flimsy (and apologetic) that theologians had to go a long way to create a vocabulary that made them independently and mutually impressive.  That goal, I write to say, was never achieved. Claims were made and games were played, but theology did not succeed in preserving the life of its divine protagonist–not even in the totally cynical and ephemeral God is dead theology of the ‘sixties.


Beginning before the publication of Karl Barth’s “neo-orthodox” tome, The Epistle to the Romans (1922), where the Swiss theologian reaffirms for protestants everywhere the primacy of faith, “serious”  theology became enamoured of the idea that God as God is invulnerable to scientific thought, as the term was understood in the mid-twentieth century.

There were plenty of medieval (and later) parallels to this way of thinking, ranging from mysticism to the “apophatic” theology of some of the scholastics, which even included the acknowledgement that the statement “God exists,” if it means existence of a temporal, durable, knowable kind, is false.

"God does not exist but nothing else matters."

In most areas of life, to say something doesn’t exist means you don’t need to be concerned about it: it can’t bite you or lend you money. In theology, however, this sublime non-existence evoked awe, mystery, dread, and reverence–the very things you don’t get in the morning with coffee and toast. It can even give your own pathetic existence meaning if you just embrace its awesomeness.  Authentically.

Modern discussions of existence as a mere temporal condition of being, especially Heidegger’s, emboldened theologians to think outside the box, with Heidegger being to the thought of the day what Aristotle was to the thirteenth century Church.  Thus Rudolph Bultmann could write this confrontational paragraph in his essay “The New Testament and Mythology” (1941):

The cosmology of the New Testament is essentially mythical in character. The world is viewed as a three storied structure, with the earth in the center, the heaven above, and the underworld beneath. Heaven is the abode of God and of celestial beings — the angels. The underworld is hell, the place of torment. Even the earth is more than the scene of natural, everyday events, of the trivial round and common task. It is the scene of the supernatural activity of God and his angels on the one hand, and of Satan and his demons on the other. These supernatural forces intervene in the course of nature and in all that men think and will and do. Miracles are by no means rare. Man is not in control of his own life. Evil spirits may take possession of him. Satan may inspire him with evil thoughts. Alternatively, God may inspire his thought and guide his purposes. He may grant him heavenly visions. He may allow him to hear his word of succor or demand. He may give him the supernatural power of his Spirit. History does not follow a smooth unbroken course; it is set in motion and controlled by these supernatural powers. This æon is held in bondage by Satan, sin, and death (for “powers” is precisely what they are), and hastens towards its end. That end will come very soon, and will take the form of a cosmic catastrophe. It will be inaugurated by the “woes” of the last time. Then the Judge will come from heaven, the dead will rise, the last judgment will take place, and men will enter into eternal salvation or damnation…”

None of this is literally true–indeed, has already proved not to be true, Bultmann said; none of these things will happen in the way they are described. Called “demythologization,” Bultmann’s program did not call for a simple recognition that (most) modern people find the biblical landscape fantastic and absurd, but an aggressive embrace of methods that would strip mythology away and leave in its place the bare “kerygma”–the message.


While Bultmann could be cagey about the implications of this message,  especially in correspondence with critics like Barth (who refused to accept Bultmann’s defintion of myth) he essentially embraced the axiom of Rudolph Otto (overlaid with Heidegger’s phenomenology) that “God is wholly Other” than the categories we associate with existence.  It was the theological equivalent of hitting the target in front of you and hearing your opponent say, “That isn’t the target you needed to hit.”

     Theologians spent the next forty years coming to terms with the contours (and dead-ends) of Bultmann’s thought.  His contribution to biblical studies was to persuade timid seminarians, accustomed to treating the biblical text with reverence rather than historical skepticism, that in taking a knife to scripture they were not making it bleed away its life.  They were saving it from the cancer of obsolete thoughts and ideas–freeing the message of authentic existence to be itself, making faith a “choice” rather than blind obedience to discredited ideas and dogmas.  Like all closed systems, it made sense from the inside.

While there was much to admire here there was almost no one to admire it: a program for liberal biblical scholars to consider, conservatives to eschew, and almost everyone else to ignore.  Looking back on his legacy from the vantage point of the twenty-first century, it looks strangely like a plant bred only for the hothouse of academic theology and not suited for life in real weather.

The term “demythologization” acquired a voltage among under-read–especially Catholic and evangelical scholars–that was only rivaled by the word “atheism.” Not an elegant prose stylist (most German academic theology of the period was pure fustian) Bultmann was at least considered dangerous in the establishment he was trying to save from intellectual disgrace.


In systematic theology the task was roughly the same, though the tracks did not always run parallel and (perhaps surprisingly) the historical track was often more radical than the theological one as “demythologization” merged with the “hermeneutics of suspicion,” a boutique of approaches that put the biblical text at the mercy of historical criticism.

Tillich in 1957, while still at Harvard, addressed the question of God and the modern situation directly in a Garvin Lecture called “The Idea of God as Affected by Modern Knowledge.”  His key theological slogans are all present in this lecture: God is not a “being,” but the ground of all being–being itself.  All language about God is symbolic rather than realistic, including the meaning of the concept of God–which is not the same as the symbol. It is impossible to describe God or to say anything “non-symbolic” about him.

Like other existentialists Tillich was confronted not just by the problems entailed for theology by God’s non-existence but by the implications of that recognition for human existence itself.  Sartre, among others, had described the sense of emptiness brought on by the end of God’s moral reign as despair, nausea, freedom without purpose. Tillich thought that Christianity’s emphasis on faith was both an acknowledgement that the concept of a literal God was done for  (that is, something implicit in faith itself) but also an opening to being.  In a vocabulary that sometimes rivals Heidegger’s for pure self-indulgence, this is variously described as the “God above god,” “Being itself,” and “ultimate concern.” It is whatever humans regard as sacred, numinous, holy (in traditional language), but so overwhelming that it requires total surrender.  The God of theological theism is no longer the cure but the source of doubt and despair.  He

…deprives me of my subjectivity because he is all-powerful and all-knowing. I revolt and make him into an object, but the revolt fails and becomes desperate. God appears as the invincible tyrant, the being in contrast with whom all other beings are without freedom and subjectivity. He is equated with recent tyrants with the help of terror try to transform everything into a mere object, a thing among things, a cog in a machine they control. He becomes the model of everything against which Existentialism revolted. This is the God Nietzsche said had to be killed because nobody can tolerate being made into a mere object of absolute knowledge and absolute control. This is the deepest root of atheism. It is an atheism which is justified as the reaction against theological theism and its disturbing implication.  (The Courage to Be, 135)

Tillich’s theism was pure humanism in a different and slightly dishonest wrapper.  He confesses as much in his Garvin Lecture when he says that far from science creating the modern situation of universal doubt, it is “the wisdom of twentieth century art, literature, drama and poetry…which reveals man’s predicament: his having to die, his being estranged, his being threatened with the loss of meaning, his becoming an object among other objects” (Idea of God, 108).  God for Tillich is non-objectifiable, thus crumbles when he is made into what the French theologian Gabriel Vahanian called a “cultural artifact,” an idol. Tillich’s theology was at bottom a religious answer to the question Sartre said it was cowardly to answer religiously.

We are already writing the history of post-modernism, and the histories of existentialism are legion.  It’s a history of malaise and post-War exhaustion conceived as a general theory of the “human predicament,” the “modern situation.” Tillich believed that by admitting to the collapse of the literal god-concept, the God of religious authority (an admission that by no means all Christians would have joined him in making!) an epistemological substitute could arise to save us from the mess we have made of our world, our society, our disoriented and alienated selves.  But the distance between a God who could disappear into the vortex (a favourite image of the period) of despair and anxiety and be purified and strengthened by it (Tillich)  and God as “absence, the solitude of man” (Sartre) defined the distance between a reupholstered illusion and the reality that had made atheism an option forced by twentieth century realities. Both thinkers agreed on the non-existence of God.  Yet for Tillich, that was no reason to sacrifice a symbol.


The invulnerators were obviously infected with the spirit of their own formative fantasy, the resurrection, which saw the death of the human Jesus as the prelude to his immortal reign.  Christians as Christians clung to a highly material view of that belief, and the associated belief that as it was for Jesus, so it would be for them–a little less royal but every bit as everlasting.

Tillich’s attempt to recast Christianity in the vulgate of the 1950’s is stale, but not merely stale because it is dated: stale because it is pedantic and wrong–atheism dressed as a bishop, when it was perfectly possible to dress in shirt and trousers and say what you really think and mean: The God of Christian theism is a story.  He does not exist.  All theological projects to prove his existence have failed.  The historical and critical work of the last two centuries have made his existence absurd to increasing numbers of people, making religious beliefs harder to maintain and defend.  This has turned millions of people into seekers, and created a situation which humankind has not encountered before.  Its outcome is still unknown.

That is what Tillich should have confessed because it is what he thought. Yet his solution was to offer sedatives and linguistic figments to people whose imagination, courage and intellect he didn’t trust.  Methadone, as I said, for religion-recovery.

Of Anachronism

Some atheists have proposed that it is possible to be good without God. They’ve plastered the slogan on buses, developed websites, and sold t-shirts to press the point home.  In a minor spin of the same message, other atheists are saying that despite what “religious people” (or often simply “religion”) says, you don’t need God to lead a good and meaningful life.  If the meaning of these slogans is that millions of people find moral value and meaning outside the constraints of religious faith, I agree–wholeheartedly–and I think I am one of them.  I challenge anyone to a duel if they say my love of art, music and literature is deficient; and I will shoot first.

At first flush, these seem like eminently reasonable propositions–as unarguable as Dr Seuss’s assertion in Horton Hears a Who that “a person’s a person no matter how small.” It’s the language of the culture of self-esteem.  And it tells us that, despite anything Dostoevsky might have said a hundred (plus) years ago, it’s the absence of God that makes us all equally worthy; the moral universe does not collapse with his non-existence.

On the contrary, the presence of God, or at least a law-giving god like the biblical god,  creates a value system and a moral hierarchy that modern women and men find unbearable.  There is no universal human equivalence in this God’s world, only saints and sinners, law and law-breaking.  I reject that system as vigorously as do my atheist friends. There can be nothing like a human moral system–a system good for humans–apart from humanity.  Many atheists believe this– and many religious people, even if they don’t, will eventually have to face up to it.

Unfortunately, atheists at this point often try to press their case by cherrypicking the most obscene passages of the Old Testament and raising questions about the mental capacity of people who (they seem to allege) believe the verses still apply. Should parentsLapidation: fun for the whole family be permitted to kill disobedient sons after a cursory inquiry at “the city gates”?  Should fathers be able to sell daughters in slavery?  Is a woman unclean (untouchable) for sixty-six days after the birth of a female child?  Does the definition of rape depend on whether it happens near a city or in the country? Is God so petulant that he needs to destroy a world he could have made better, thus causing his non-omniscient self, not to mention his creatures,  endless trouble?

The relative ease with which these questions can be tossed aside in disdain should clue the reader to the fact that he is not reading an engineering textbook, that he is trodding on unfamiliar, primitive soil.

If you can read this, do what it says...

The script for these objections changes slightly, but the underlying assumption of an unbelief-ful realist doesn’t: The common notion is that if you point out tirelessly what a silly book the bible is people will eventually begin to read it, see the absurdity, and say “Eureka: what an idiot I’ve been.”

I think these Aha! moments actually happen in certain cases, but the great majority of believers really don’t care about the absurdities, and the more “faithful” they are to the traditions of their church, the more they will know that the tribal contexts of Old Testament justice (exception being made for the recent use of lex talionis on bin Laden) don’t form part of the living voice of religious tradition in the twenty first century–just as they haven’t for almost a millennium.

Maybe, as an axiom, unbelievers should flirt with the idea that things that are regarded as anachronistic or irrelevant by the vast majority of religious people are not the best evidence against theism.  That is why, for example, most philosophy of religion anthologies that include a chapter on “Descriptions and Attributes of God” deal with properties and not irrelevances skimmed from the pages of the Bible.

Anachronism is a putative pitfall in constructing any historical argument.  To see how, don’t think Biblical law and custom–Think Hamlet. I remember thinking, the first time I read the play, that all the violence could have been avoided if the young prince had just called the police.  (Never-mind that if that had been an option Shakespeare would not have had a tragedy)  After all, the evidence was all on Hamlet’s side.  Polonius might have testfied. Even Gertrude might have broken down and ratted on Claudius, and Claudius himself was not exactly a bastion of resolve.  Instead, it all ends badly with everyone dead, including Hamlet.  Fortunately I did not offer this solution on my final exam.  It would have been my Paris Hilton moment.

But, no doubt, you’re way ahead of me. Hamlet doesn’t call the police because there weren’t any. Armies, sure, but armies weren’t usually called in to settle domestic spats, not even ones involving murder. Shakespeare wrote the play based (perhaps) on a thirteenth century work by Saxo Grammaticus–when justice was even more primeval and unavailable than in his own day, and where honor, shame and vengeance were largely governed by family honor and local magistrates (judges)–closer therefore to the Bible than to modern practice.  Ultimately, the stories about heirs, usurpers and murder can be traced all the way back to David and Saul, or to Isaac, Esau and Jacob.

When did “crime” become a police (literally, a city) matter and not something to be dealt with in feudal or family fashion? 1822, when Robert Peel founded the London constabulary–a move opposed by many people in London (and it was, at first, just in London) because the city folk didn’t want a government agency getting between them and justice. Objections persevered north of the border in Scotland and in the Appalachian mountains of Tennessee in the tradition of clan violence. The first “bobbies” were drawn from the lower ranks of society; many were drunks and bullies–uniformed thugs who meted out justice in strange ways.  When in 1833 Constable Robert Culley was stabbed to death while breaking up an unlawful meeting, a jury acquitted the murderers and a newspaper awarded medals to the jurors. Let’s not even talk about Boston and Chicago in the nineteenth century.

Our sense of justice and the control of crime is a peculiarly modern invention. Yet we’re perfectly willing to accept (without knowing much about its evolution) that things were different–once. We don’t give a second thought to the fact that the meaning of justice has developed along with ways of enforcing and distributing it.  And without getting into the politics of a recent international event, we (many, anyway) don’t really interrogate the sentence “Justice was done” when clearly what is meant is “Vengeance was exacted.”  The recrudescence of biblical justice in exceptional cases, like poverty, is something we have to expect.

Scales--yes--but the sword is bigger

So I am curious about why the most universally abhorrent and rejected verses in the Bible should become symbolic of the entirety of the biblical world view. Why do we accept gratefully the social evolution of secular justice but deny religion the right to its own conceptual evolution by insisting it must be held accountable for things it produced in the Bronze Age? If evolution is the key to understanding how the world has come to be the way it looks to us, what’s the point in insisting that the religious landscape is unchanging?  I frankly cannot imagine a more tendentious assessment of history than that one.

The fact is, whatever he may or may not have said, you will not find Jesus of Nazareth enjoining the poor to sell their children into slavery to raise some quick cash.  But Hebrew settlers a thousand years before him probably did just that.  You will find him exhorting a rich young man to sell what he has, and give it to the poor, in order to be a worthy disciple. A thousand years before, to the extent that this history is known to us, such advice would have been feckless, almost incomprehensible.  It is similar to my wondering why Hamlet didn’t call the cops on Claudius.

Even the Hebrew Bible shows the slow and deliberate growth of a moral conscience over its millennium-long development: Like any idea that lasts longer than a day, God evolves:

This is what the Lord says: Do what is just and right. Rescue from the hand of his oppressor the one who has been robbed. Do no wrong or violence to the alien, the fatherless or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place. (Jeremiah 22.3)

And let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. (Amos, 5.24)

You’ve heard it said, An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth [Exodus 21.24]. But I say to you not to succumb to evil: but if one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him also the other.” (Matthew 5.39f.)

None of these comments constitutes a moral system; I may not accept or believe them (especially my “obligation” to an enemy) and the Church itself has fallen shamelessly down if  the advice of Matthew 5.39 is taken at face value as a standard for all Christians.

But simple historical honesty requires us to notice the change, and along with that (note well,  my friends who tout the iron law of evolution in all things progressive) that the advantageous ethic, the one that looks for compassion and generosity rather than vengeance and payback, is the one that survives the predations of history.  Not perfectly, but more adequately.

Frankly, atheists will get nowhere with the message of “good without God” and its accompanying parody of religious ethics and its drone about the pure awfulness of the Bible. They might succeed in persuading themselves of the rectitude of disbelief by creating a litany of biblical absurdities.  But then the core principle of development, which is really at the heart of the atheist worldview, is laid aside in favor of a partial and static view of history that careful investigation won’t support.

The moral is, you can’t call the police when there aren’t any. And you can’t blame the Bible for being a “moral archive” of how human beings have changed their minds over the course of 2500 years.

Theology and Falsification: The Hijacking of Antony Flew

Antony Flew at home in 2007

Antony Flew died on April 8, 2010 after a career that earned him the reputation of being one of the most acute critics of theology and theological discourse in the Anglo-American philosophical tradition.

The excerpt here, from “Theology and Falsification” (1950) represents Flew’s attempt to examine the statement “God loves us,” against the background of Christian theodicy–the belief that the goodness of God can be reconciled with the seeming contradiction that there is natural and moral evil in the world he created.  With his later essay, “The Presumption of Atheism” (1984) it is one of the most popular contributions to the philosophy of religion ever written.

Courted at the end of his life by a variety of evangelical Christian groups, and in declining health after 2003, Flew is sometimes represented as a “convert” to Christianity, specifically deistic theism, who came finally to accept the “complexity” arguments associated with the “intelligent design” proponents.  The history of this period was summarized in a 2007 New York Times feature by Mark Oppenheimer, “The Turning of an Atheist.”

Various individuals and groups have put forward letters and interviews from him to support their own view. None adds up to a coherent picture of Antony Flew’s state of mind after 2003.

My own take on the situation is very different, having known him and worked with him closely in Britain between 1991 and 1997, and remaining in close touch until 2006.

In 1996 Flew came to me asking if I would reprint in the Journal for the Critical Study of Religion, which I then edited, his essay “The Presumption of Atheism.” Since the article had been frequently anthologized (and pressed for space) I demured and asked him why.

The answer came a few days later in the form of a manuscript by a conservative, then little-known evangelical Christian philosopher, Douglas Geivett, entitled “A Pascalian Rejoinder to ‘The Presumption of Atheism’.” Flew asked for it to be included because he found the argument compelling. “Do you mean you think he’s right?” I asked. “No.” he shot back. “I am right. He is compelling.”

The essays were published in JCSR 2/2 (1997) as a matched set.  On receiving his copies, Flew phoned me to say that he was happy to have done Geivett the favour, but even happier that people would be able to judge the difference between the two positions.

Geivett’s friend and collaborator at the “Christian Research Institute,” Gary Habermas (whom Flew had debated in 1984 before 3000 people),  then began his long campaign to remodel Flew’s ideas under the pretext of a “discussion.”  Flew seemed to regard this interchange as an extended debate of the sort he enjoyed.  In CRI propaganda, however, Geivett contended that Flew’s new position was an evolving deism, “Historic deists [sic] were moving away from Christianity and toward atheism. Flew, however, seems to be moving in the opposite direction from his decades-long atheism.” It was the kind of life-changing experience that CRI craved in order to bolster its claims of being a Christian think tank.

While Flew regarded his involvement with the CRI and Geivett as a debate, not a process of conversion, he was becoming less good at it, and less clear and careful at sorting details. From 2004 onward,  following an interview with Habermas published in a Biola University journal Philosophia Christi, in which Flew appeared to reverse some of cirticisms of theism, the claim was routinely made that Flew was a Christian.  As time went on, Flew’s repeated attempts to clarify his position to concerned friends led to even greater confusion.  He was no longer able to extricate himself from the intellectual bondage of his Christian interpreters.

It has alays been my view that the Geivett-Habermas hijacking of Flew’s ideas during this period stands as one of the most shameful episodes in the history of philosophy since the trial of Socrates.   It was Tony’s willingness to engage positions no matter how inimical to the empiricism he embraced that characterized his life as a philosopher. His insistence that his own essay appear, unedited and unchanged, alongside that of Geivett was proof that he stood firmly by his views, and that Geivett’s ideas did not demand separate rebuttal.

By Antony Flew

Let us begin with a parable. It is a parable developed from a tale told by John Wisdom in his haunting and revolutionary article “Gods.”[1] Once upon a time two explorers came upon a clearing in the jungle. In the clearing were growing many flowers and many weeds. One explorer says, “Some gardener must tend this plot.” The other disagrees, “There is no gardener.” So they pitch their tents and set a watch. No gardener is ever seen. “But perhaps he is an invisible gardener.” So they set up a barbed-wire fence. They electrify it. They patrol with bloodhounds. (For they remember how H. G. Well’s The Invisible Man could be both smelt and touched though he could not be seen.) But no shrieks ever suggest that some intruder has received a shock. No movements of the wire ever betray an invisible climber. The bloodhounds never give cry. Yet still the Believer is not convinced. “But there is a gardener, invisible, intangible, insensible, to electric shocks, a gardener who has no scent and makes no sound, a gardener who comes secretly to look after the garden which he loves.” At last the Sceptic despairs, “But what remains of your original assertion? Just how does what you call an invisible, intangible, eternally elusive gardener differ from an imaginary gardener or even from no gardener at all?”

John Wisdom, "Gods"

In this parable we can see how what starts as an assertion, that something exist or that there is some analogy between certain complexes of phenomena, may be reduced step by step to an altogether different status, to an expression perhaps of a “picture preference.”[2] The Sceptic says there is no gardener. The Believer says there is a gardener (but invisible, etc.). One man talks about sexual behavior. Another man prefers to talk of Aphrodite (but knows that there is not really a superhuman person additional to, and somehow responsible for, all sexual phenomena).[3] The process of qualification may be checked at any point before the original assertion is completely withdrawn and something of that first assertion will remain (Tautology).

Mr. Wells’ invisible man could not, admittedly, be seen, but in all other respects he was a man like the rest of us. But though the process of qualification may be and of course usually is, checked in time, it is not always judicially so halted. Someone may dissipate his assertion completely without noticing that he has done so. A fine brash hypothesis may thus be killed by inches, the death by a thousand qualifications.

And in this, it seems to me, lies the peculiar danger, the endemic evil, of theological utterance. Take such utterances as “God has a plan,” “God created the world,” “God loves us as a father loves his children.” They look at first sight very much like assertions, vast cosmological assertions. Of course, this is no sure sign that they either are, or are intended to be, assertions. But let us confine ourselves to the cases where those who utter such sentences intended them to express assertions. (Merely remarking parenthetically that those who intend or interpret such utterances as crypto-commands, expressions of wishes, disguised ejaculations, concealed ethics, or as anything else but assertions, are unlikely to succeed in making them either properly orthodox or practically effective).

Now to assert that such and such is the case is necessarily equivalent to denying that such and such is not the case.[4] Suppose then that we are in doubt as to what someone who gives vent to an utterance is asserting, or suppose that, more radically, we are sceptical as to whether he is really asserting anything at all, one way of trying to understand (or perhaps to expose) his utterance is to attempt to find what he would regard as counting against, or as being incompatible with, its truth. For if the utterance is indeed an assertion, it will necessarily be equivalent to a denial of the negation of the assertion. And anything which would count against the assertion, or which would induce the speaker to withdraw it and to admit that it had been mistaken, must be part of (or the whole of) the meaning of the negation of that assertion. And to know the meaning of the negation of an assertion, is as near as makes no matter, to know the meaning of that assertion.[5] And if there is nothing which a putative assertion denies then there is nothing which it asserts either: and so it is not really an assertion. When the Sceptic in the parable asked the Believer, “Just how does what you call an invisible, intangible, eternally elusive gardener differ from an imaginary gardener or even from no gardener at all?” he was suggesting that the Believer’s earlier statement had been so eroded by qualification that it was no longer an assertion at all.

Now it often seems to people who are not religious as if there was no conceivable event or series of events the occurrence of which would be admitted by sophisticated religious people to be a sufficient reason for conceding “there wasn’t a God after all” or “God does not really love us then.” Someone tells us that God loves us as a father loves his children. We are reassured. But then we see a child dying of inoperable cancer of the throat. His earthly father is driven frantic in his efforts to help, but his Heavenly Father reveals no obvious sign of concern. Some qualification is made — God’s love is “not merely human love” or it is “an inscrutable love,” perhaps — and we realize that such suffering are quite compatible with the truth of the assertion that “God loves us as a father (but of course…).” We are reassured again. But then perhaps we ask: what is this assurance of God’s (appropriately qualified) love worth, what is this apparent guarantee really a guarantee against? Just what would have to happen not merely (morally and wrongly) to tempt but also (logically and rightly) to entitle us to say “God does not love us” or even “God does not exist”? I therefore put to the succeeding symposiasts the simple central questions, “What would have to occur or to have occurred to constitute for you a disproof of the love of, or the existence of, God?”


1. P.A.S., 1944-5, reprinted as Ch. X of Logic and Language, Vol. I (Blackwell, 1951), and in his Philosophy and Psychoanalysis (Blackwell, 1953).

2. Cf. J. Wisdom, “Other Minds,” Mind, 1940; reprinted in his Other Minds (Blackwell, 1952).

Cf. Lucretius, De Rerum Natura, II, 655-60.

3. For those who prefer symbolism: p = ~ ~ p.

4. For by simply negating ~ p we get p: = ~ ~ p = p.

The Gospel of Chloe: A New Contribution to “Q” Studies

While this corrupt tract, found pasted to the bottom of a patio table in Sharm el Sheik, dates from the second century, it does not seem to be connected with similar materials found in saunas and billiard table pockets.

Judging from the poor condition of the manuscript, multiple erasures, and detritus from camel faex, the original language seems to have been Aramaic, suggesting a Palestinian provenance for its most important ideas. A third character is a female disciple referred to only as “Daughter” by the male speakers. Extraneous ossuary evidence from Talpiot (תלפיות) shows almost decisively that the woman in question is the biological daughter of Judas and hence the niece of Jesus by Judas’s sister Tiffany.

While an interesting product of a syncretistic heretical movement, scholars have been unable to determine what relevance its contents may have for the serious study of the New Testament.


Jesus: Judas, do you [ ] me?

Judas: That depends on what you mean by [ ]

Jesus: Judas, do you [ ] Me?

Judas. Oh, that’s better, you ask louder and capitalize Me. It’s like I said, and it’s what the Daughter said. It is what it is, isn’t it?

Jesus: So you don’t?

Daughter: Like who said?

Jesus: Who will remember the Glory?

Daughter (rubbing eyes and adjusting veil): I will.

Judas. I never know what to answer. Ok, I will too. And just what is the glory?

Jesus: The Kingdom of God is like the night sky at noon.

Judas: Just don’t. People are already saying we’re gnostics. No, I say, he’s tired. He’s been with the multitudes again. He doesn’t bring lunch, again. Maybe blood sugar, knock on wood.

Jesus: But you must remember; that is why I came into the world
Daughter: Why do you say things like “came into the world”? We know where you’re from. You came in a cart just like the rest of us.

Jesus: It will be harder for a relatively fat man to prick his neighbor with a needle than for a camel to enter the mystery of the kingdom of God by the narrow gate. But I say to you, shake the dust off your sandals! Let him who has ears, etc.

Judas: Look, my job is to make sense of this. When you hired me, you said Judas, what I really need is a PR man, a people person. Ever since then, it’s Judas do you love me. Peter do you love me. It’s driving us all blithers. We need writers–professional people who can sell it. Frankly, the boys are saying you’ve lost it and that we’ll never get to Jerusalem.

Daughter: I know someone. His name is Chloe.

Judas: Chloe is a girl’s name.

Daughter: It’s a gender preference. He writes like a boy.

Judas: We can change his name to–something else.

Jesus: I like Chloe: Someday he’ll be famous, like the womb that bore me. Does Chloe love me?

Judas: Chloe doesn’t bloody know you. You talk, let Daughter write. Do your short thingies, not the long “I am the cherry in the middle of the chocolate”- stuff.

Daughter: I don’t know how to write. I have a good memory, though. I think it will help with the kerygma.

Jesus: The law is inscribed on the hearts of men though not one of seven bothers know what treasures it will own when the son of man comes like David on the heights. Not women though. It’s not inscribed there. The secret of the Kingdom lay hidden like a pearl under an oyster basket. Who among the daughters of men can shuck the oyster….

Judas: You can’t saaay that. In two thousand years people will say, Oh right: Jesus the liberator. Look what he says about women and oysters. And you don’t bloody make sense and you don’t stick to the point and without us you’d still be scrubbing spit off the floor in your father’s house.

Jesus: In my father’s house there are countless mansions. And my father will say to you, “Depart from me before I cast you among the swine like the pearls you are” or something like that.

Judas: Daughter, how much will Chloe want to sort this out?

Daughter: He’ll do it for thirty.

Judas: Thirty denarii? That’s great.

Daughter: Thirty pieces of silver. That’s real money.

Judas: It will break us. It might not even be worth it to clean up his language, but sometimes he sounds sane. And let’s face it, he’s the rockstar. Christ, if only he hadn’t wasted the nard.

Daughter: That’s right, blame me. He has really nice feet.

Jesus: Blessed be you Simon bar Jona, for flesh and blood sake now get behind me. Yes, there.

Judas: That’s disgusting. No wonder Peter ran off. He’s in one of his trances. Does Chloe know we can’t put his name on the scroll?

Daughter: Not yet. I still have to see if he’s got time. What do you suggest.

Judas: Discretion. People have to think he said it. No titles, no bylines. Thirty drachma, not a copper more. Just the sayings that make a little sense. No description–no lakes, or hill, or cliffs. We’ll fill that in later, after… you know.

Daughter: Got it. Just sort out the sayings.

Judas: Not all of them. I’ve got someone named John working on the worst ones. We’ll see how he goes, maybe publish a second volume. But John wants a byline. The pig.

Daughter: Just the sayings, no scenery, make them short.

Judas: Exactly: We can do this. “Chloe” Move it around your mouth. It has a nice qof thing going—k-k–k. That’s it, we’ll call it Q. Just us–us. No one outside knows. In two thousand years, who will guess?

Cleopas the Atheist

The dilemma for thoughtful people who find much to commend in serious unbelief is brought about by unthoughtful and (often) unserious people. Even if their intentions are good (as in nice, not naughty) their tactics are terrible. I quote me:

My real quibble with redivivus atheism is that it has taken a sideshow approach to a subject that ought to be viewed and debated seriously. Atheism, as such, is an intellectual position, not a moral philosophy. But sideshow atheism is neither. Blasphemy Days, sloganeering, bus campaigns, unbaptisms, video challenges, cartoon contests — whatever motivates this activity (bonding, boredom, or the lust to be noticed?), it is not of a kind nor quality that does atheists any good. If instead of arguing their case, the atheist strategy for growth was to build the world’s most repulsive bogeyman, they have done a good job.

I am not even certain why atheists feel they have the right to feel more agitated and annoyed by the noise of the religious right, which after all is simply a bigger and more influential sideshow, than liberally religious, studiously ethical, or indifferent men and women — where I think the real and growing numbers of “converts” are. Most absurd of all is the persistent effort of younger new atheists, the Dawkinsians and Flying Spaghetti Monstratarians, to see their “cause” as equivalent to the civil and sexual rights movements of the twentieth century.

Ophelia Benson has claimed that it’s now fashionable to kick the new atheism around: it’s so first-half decade of the new millennium.

She is probably right. Nothing is more fun than to trample on icons when they’re already on the ground, whether it’s Lenin or Saddam Hussein, or the dude you were rooting against on Survivor Nicaragua. There is something immensely satisfying about knocking the hubris out of heroes who only yesterday were treading on red carpets, as the Greeks discovered when Aeschylus sent Agamemnon for a bath. If you ever wondered about the phrase “kicking Johnnie when he’s down”–it’s all relative to how far up Johnnie was when he fell.

Time marching on

And I have done my share of kicking–even before the final Act of Pride when four mediocre thinkers, none of them especially knowledgeable about religion, dubbed themselves “new” (as in atheism) and imagined themselves riding like Durer’s Four Horsemen against the horizon of the new age of unbelief. In fact, modus-operandically, they were much more like the Four Evangelists, telling much the same story: God does not exist; Religion is awful; People who think otherwise have IQ’s somewhere lower down on the evolutionary scale they don’t believe in.

Messiahs over Perrier

There was absolutely nothing new about new atheism except a naive confidence on the part of certain organizations (here nameless) that their messiahs had come. Unable in their own right to be anything but small, they found a role as booking agencies for the rock stars of the atheist wave.

The funny thing about messiahs, religious and political, is that they both come and go. That’s why Christians have always held to the second coming–the really important one, when all the things that were disappointing about the first one, especially the non-recognition of the savior and his untimely death before his work was done, will be put right. In the case of the new atheists, messiahship even came with choice: a couple of professors, a plain-spoken but slightly mystical graduate student (then), a sharp-penned intellectual. It was an embarrassment of bitches.

But it could not last. And now the question is, what was it all about, this shining anti-Christmas star that adorned the secular heavens for five years, give or take a year.

I have never been able to resist analogies to religious experience because, whether atheists like it or not, religion and irreligiosity have a lot in common. In fact, as atheism has everything to do with religion, only religious analogies are apt. Here is one:

In a piercing note of disappointment recorded in the Third Gospel (Luke before you peek), a group of wayfarers returning from celebrating Passover in Jerusalem encounter Jesus incognito on the road. It is, suggestively, three days after the crucifixion. Jesus asks them, in so many words, “Why the gloomy faces?” And a certain Cleopas proceeds to recount the events of the last few days, including reports of the empty tomb. Cleopas also registers his own disappointment:

“We had been hoping that he was the one who would liberate Israel.”

The story has been overwritten by a heavy hand with no appreciation for the irony of Cleopas’s belief that they had it wrong: that Jesus was not the messiah after all. The story does not end there, though it should have.

Before atheist pecksniffians point to the improbability of this little scene: I do not believe this encounter ever happened. But I do believe the scene is instructive far beyond its grounding in folklore and legend. Stories are funny that way. Less than a century after this piece was composed, the Jews of Palestine had found a new messiah and went down to defeat, once again, by choosing the wrong man for the job of deliverance. If they had only had two-year election cycles they could have chosen many more and been spectacularly wrong each time.

Bar Kochva

The early Christians developed their faith without books, on the basis of stories that eventually got written down and much later canonized.

The fame of the new atheist messiahs followed a far more rapid course: They began with texts, four of which became virtually canonical within four years.

Their following developed as “book events,” helped along by media, and driven by sales. It’s the difference between a reputation culminating in a book and books culminating in reputations. And yes, for purposes of my little analogy, it does not matter that the reputation of the former is sparkling with stories of the miraculous and the improbable, anymore than it matters that the books of the latter are derivative and repetitious.

The atheist authors, without pressing the analogy to its pretty obvious margins, enjoyed immense stature. Extravagant claims were made, not least in titles like The End of Faith and Breaking the Spell.

Of course there was nothing to prevent religious apologists from writing back, and they did–in droves–books that with one or two exceptions were even worse than the books that evinced them. The intellectual battle was really fought in the reviews and even in the blogosphere, much of which was acidly critical of language, argument and methods–including my own review of Daniel Dennett’s book. But nothing stood quite as tall, for a while, as the icons their followers erected to them in the naked public square. Nothing seemed to pierce the aura of the atheist olympians. Except time.

The key similarity between Christian messianism and atheist messianism is the idea that “at last” things are going to change. That liberation is at hand, achievable in the work of others. It just takes knowing who to trust–who the real deal is. I would be the first to say that the resumes of the canonical new atheists were impressive–a bit like being born of Jesse’s lineage, David’s son. It is interesting that we require our messiahs to be credentialed–either by signs and wonders, priestly and preferably royal lineage, or failing that an Oxford degree.

But at its heart, messianim is all about people wanting a change–people who feel they’ve waited long enough. People, to put it bluntly, who are feeling a bit desperate, outnumbered, isolated.

Atheists in the last century have relished being a minority, in the same way Christians basked in their minority status in the Empire. Small is good when big is bad. David and Goliath, the short guy taunting the big bully–archetypal, isn’t it, but fraught with danger.

It is hard to imagine that once upon a time Christianity (the world’s largest religion) had that kind of radical reputation, an immoderate sect, a philosophy, to quote the emperor Julian, that turned the world upside down, and from an earlier period even the stigma, according to Tertullian, of being organized atheists. But it did.

We live in a twenty first century global village, not first century Roman Palestine, so what counts as radical and revolutionary will obviously be different from the faith of the ragtag confederates who “believed the gospel.” What they believed in their time we will never quite be able to comprehend. That includes people who think they believe it now as well as people who don’t believe it because, sensibly, they think its shelf-life has expired. Those who think they know, don’t. Those who feel they are brighter than those who think they know fail to understand the unavoidable intellectual boundaries of the ancient world. This is no one’s fault exactly. The surety of the fundamentalist Christian and of the atheist are equally based on a marked indifference to the weird nexus between history and imagination, myth and reality. I can honestly say that I have no real sense of what made someone a Christian in the year 50CE other than what I know about frustration and a gnawing feeling that my time has come. And I think that no first-century Christian would make it even as far as the writings of Augustine (which they would not have been able to read) before he would find Christianity unrecognizable. Time wounds all heals.

The early Christians were “atheists” because they rejected the imperially-approved gods, making them the religious minimalists of their time. –Richard Dawkins’s over-quoted quip that some of us go one step further performs the inadvertent service of pointing out just how radical the church was in its day.

Yet I have to admit that I’ve always found it remarkable that the Christians not only survived the execution of their leader but turned the symbol of his humiliation into a symbol of their success. Ever wonder why the icon of choice isn’t some crude rendering of an empty tomb? Yes I know: crosses are easier to make. But even before they were made as amulets to hang around Christian necks, Paul comments on the fact that the death of Jesus, not his life, brings about that apparently most desirable of states, salvation. And this is because in the theology he strives stutteringly to adapt to his non-Jewish listeners, instruction, even a literal physical resurrection of believers counts for nothing. Death? Sacrifice? Immortality as a bonus? Now you’re talking. But what is key is that you can’t do it by yourself: the Christian is in an utter situation of dependence on the deliverer from sin and death.

Paul of course had the salvation myth of the mystery religions in view, a kind of thinking that has not made much sense or borne scrutiny for over a millennium. His huge disservice to humanity is that he taught people to distrust themselves–that the empty tomb was a real promise, a symbol, of eternal life, not an image of a life that has to be lived here and now, built block by block and choice by choice. His whole message pivots on the Old Testament idea that salvation comes through a heavenly other, not through human effort. Even an amateur like George Bernard Shaw knew that Paul’s “monstrous imposition upon Jesus” had profoundly negative effects on the course of civilization. It still does. They don’t know it, but when unbelievers begin to disbelieve, it’s Paul they disbelieve in.

But as a post-Christian radical theologian I have my own interpretation of what the gospel means. As a humanist, I believe it means no God will save you–us. The life of all messiahs ends in the same message: Do it yourself. It does not matter whether the message is oral or written, offered in philosophical jargon, rendered in code. It’s all the same. People who put their faith in deliverance by others will ultimately have to find their own way out of every mess.

Religion has not been the solution to the troubles of humankind–we all know that–and it has created conditions of war and poverty that don’t resemble, to any recognizable degree, the angelic salutation of Christmas night. It should come as no surprise therefore that Christmas night was no part of the original story, and despite the annual maniacala of the holiday season, Christianity has almost nothing to do with Christmas.

It has much more to do with Cleopas’s disappointment, or, in Mark’s gospel, the shuddering awareness of the women that the tomb is empty; Jesus was not there. They were alone. Maybe he had never been there. They had certainly always been alone.

What does all of this have to to do with new atheist messiahs? Curious isn’t it that so many atheists had waited in the dark for so long for light to shine in their darkness. Every secular organization was ready to hitch its wagon to their rising star. Every evangelical pharisee was ready to pounce on their message of liberation from the darkness of superstition and credulity. The defenders of the old religion, especially in what had come to be called the “post-9-11 world,” almost guaranteed their prominence. The unchurched created a virtual church around them. At its most extreme, and fair to say mainly among the organizations who exploited their work, religion became the very devil and “science and reason” sacraments of deliverance.

The stunts and gimmicks like Blasphemy Day, for anyone with a little historical savvy, resembled nothing so much as the pageant wagons that rumbled into medieval European villages with their stock of stereotyped nasties: Herod, Caiphas, Pontius Pilate, the Devil himself. Whatever the new atheists were, the atheistism they spawned was part polemic, part simple buffoonery, mainly humbug. It was strangely suited for an illiterate age in which the movers and shakers themselves, like false messiahs throughout time, thought they were original and promised goods they couldn’t deliver.

Popularity is the death of every radical movement, or rather the death of its radical nature. New atheism didn’t die because fundamentalists were “right” or because evangelicals crucified it, or even because philosophical critics (maybe that’s my niche vis-à-vis this movement) warned that it wouldn’t last for long.

It set itself up for a free fall proportionate to its quick rise because its messiahs accepted the title–relished the title. Not a bit like the Jesus who, in one account of his interrogation anyway, demured by saying, “Call me what you want to.”

What is required of any believer and every atheist is the frank acknowledgement that the tomb is empty. The harvest is passed. The summer is ended. The messiah has never come and will not come. And we are not saved. But that is the challenge, not the end of the story.


Defining Fundamentalism

“To be a fundamentalist, you have to have a book. And you have to forget the book has a history.”

A New Oxonian Oldie

I’ve been puzzling about this recently: whether there is anything that Christian and Muslim fundamentalists have in common. I’ll leave the Jews and the Sikhs and Hindus to one side for a minute. Just because I want to.

First of all, you have to have a book to be a fundamentalist. It’s no good trying to say you take your religion seriously if you don’t have a page to point at or a verse to recite.

Theoretically, various gurus can exert the same sort of control that a book can exert over the mind of a true believer. But usually gurus begin by pointing at books as well.

That’s what both Jim Jones of People’s Temple, Inc., and David Koresh of Branch Davidian fame did. They were just the messengers, albeit the ones you had to sleep with to get the keys to the kingdom.

They became convinced that they were the fulfillment of texts they’d read one too many times. In the same way, the music of rote repetition seems to inspire Taliban leaders like Mullah Omar and the late and invidious Baitullah Mehsud as well. Fundamentalists read texts written 1000 years ago as though they were hot off the press–like this from the world’s most famous MIA:

Praise be to God, who revealed the Book, controls the clouds, defeats factionalism, and says in His Book: “But when the forbidden months are past, then fight and slay the pagans wherever ye find them, seize them, beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them in every stratagem (of war)….The Arabian Peninsula has never–since God made it flat, created its desert, and encircled it with seas–been stormed by any forces like the crusader armies spreading in it like locusts, eating its riches and wiping out its plantations. All this is happening at a time in which nations are attacking Muslims like people fighting over a plate of food.” (1998 fatwah)

It’s so easy to forget the Crusades, isn’t it? Especially since the last one ended in 1291 with the interlopers in full retreat, barely managing to keep the booty in their saddlebags as they galloped away.

But to review, two things pop out at us immediately when you think of fundamentalism: you have to have a book that you take deadly seriously, and you have to forget that the book has a history.

The second point is massively important, because it permits the fundamentalist to ignore science, cultural change, and prevents the possibility of seeing the book as being, in any sense, out of date, irrelevant, or out of touch with current political or ethical contexts. If people had prophets then, who’s to say they can’t have prophets now?, say the David Koreshs and Dale Barlows of this world. We say so, say the Omar Bakri Mohammeds and Abu Izzadeens right back. After all, we’re reading different books. We can’t all be right. Fundamentalism is always particular to the truth claims of a group: one man’s fundamentals are another man’s pornography. Both responses to books written a long time ago are manifestations of historical illiteracy.

Revd Hagee

Another thing, an important feature: fundamentalists have to be right. Not in the sense you and I might be right if we scored a Daily Double on Jeopardy. Right in the sense that there has to be a slope-shouldered, humiliated wrong sitting next to it. Right in the sense that there can’t be a middle way between good and evil.

Fundamentalists have no trouble doing this because the world of late antiquity where their ideas were forged in an atmosphere of petty monarchic rivalries and mythic theomachies–mainly in the Middle East and North Africa, by the way–was an easily divisible cosmos. Us and Them, equated easily to good and evil, in political and hence in religious terms. That’s what Mani taught, what Zoroaster taught before him.


It’s also what Muhammad and his followers preached, what the Qumran War Scroll is all about (1QM, 4Q491-496) and (no good trying to wriggle out of it: read Mark 13.13) what Jesus taught, in his eschatological rhapsodies at least.

The notion that in the end, “all of Darkness is to be destroyed and Light will live in peace for all eternity” is very appealing. But there’s a good chance the person next to you belongs to the other side. At least that’s what you’ve been taught. To be a fundamentalist is to have the religious equivalent of a teenager’s fear of vampires.

That’s what makes the next two characteristics of fundamentalism so important: extermination (in two forms) and conversion. The People’s Temple, the Yearn for Zion (YFZ) Mormons and the Branch Davidian “cults” created or were ready to create manufactured mini-holocausts to vindicate their beliefs.

When the sheriffs’ cars rolled up on the edge of their compounds, the sacred boundary between purity and corruption, they were ready to go home. Everything about the outside world was smutty, dirty, and unchaste–huge horrible spaces swarming with unbelievers who mocked them and raced home in a satanic frenzy to watch smutty, dirty and unchaste television shows.

They had a point of course. The culture is filled with crap and we do tend to regard people who wear gingham dresses (and worry so much about chastity that they will only have sex and babies with a purified leader) as a bit off the beam. It’s a tired observation, I know, but fundamentalism is self-marginalizing:the blessings of secular culture and the contempt of its protagonists for nonconformity serve as proof to every child eight and up that daddy and mommy are “right” because difference is the ultimate distinction.

Unsurprisingly, therefore, self-extermination, a form of martyrdom, is a way in which Christian crazies can vindicate their readings of sacred writ.

Homicidal martyrdom is the trademark of Islamic fundamentalists, a much messier way to do business. You begin with the same premise as the one quoted above from bin Laden, the exemplary coward who has caused the deaths of tens of thousands of his fans, as when he sings the praises of young men who behead unbelievers:

The youths also reciting the All-Mighty words of Quran: Smite the necks…(Muhammad; 47:19). Those youths will not ask you for explanations, they will tell you, singing, there is nothing between us that needs to be explained, there is only killing and neck smiting….They have no intention except to enter paradise by killing you. An infidel, and enemy of God like you, cannot be in the same hell with his righteous executioner. (bin Laden, 1996)

Pleasure to know, moreover, that the martyr-fundamentalist does not experience the excruciating pain of his bleeding or burning infidel victims; they have the word of no less an authority than Saheeh Al-Jame’-as-Sagheer, who lived “in the seventh generation” after the Prophet and attributes the saying to Muhammad. “A martyr will not feel the pain of death except like [sic] how you feel when you are pinched.”

The idea that the martyr dies painlessly while others are screeching around him is meant to be reassuring to the half-hearted volunteer, whose rational soul tells him that he has never witnessed a death free from agony and that comrades who have been wounded in engagements with the unbelievers suffer immensely. Still, they have the word of as-Sagheer ringing in their ears: “With the first gush of [your] blood, [you] will be shown thy seat in paradise, decorated with jewels.”

Finally, fundamentalism is all about conversion, heavily infatuated with growth. It isn’t enough that the fanatic kingdom-comers of the world erect temples. They want to put people in them. That requires a recruitment program.

The statistics speak for themselves. In our stunningly up-to-the-minute culture where we can instantly communicate mathematical solutions and the latest groundbreaking article in medical research from The Lancet around the world with the flick of a key, people who think death can be like a loving pinch or noogie are clocked (in terms of percentage increase since 1989) as follows:

Islam in North America, +25%
Islam in Africa: +2.15%
Islam in Asia: +12.57%
Islam in Europe: +142.35%
Islam in Australia: +257.01%

This is not all “conversion,” of course; but conversion is a geographical and cultural mandate in Islam, and conversion from more lenient to more literal forms of Islam is also on the rise. According to an October 2009 estimate, Taliban numbers of fighters alone–those who are attracted mainly by martyrdom rather than philanthropy and virtue, went from 7,000 in Northern Afghanistan to 25,000. (Reuters, Saturday Oct. 10, 2009).

By comparison, it is becoming more difficult to define what a “fundamentalist” Christian is, potentially because the ground under his feet is more prone to cultural shift. But if we think of biblical literalism, an intolerance of  “soft” forms of Christianity (often equated to a kind of mainstream liberal heresy), the importance of conversion (in this case, evangelism), and prophetic fulfillment as the non-negotiables of fundamentalism, the following statistic is, you should pardon the expression, revealing:

Pentecostal and charismatic denominations have grown by 37% since 2001; the Churches of Christ by 48%; the Assemblies of God by 68%. (United) Methodists and Northern Baptist by 0%, Jews, -10% and Catholics, through a healthy infusion of Hispanic and Latino votaries, a mere 11%. The undeniable appeal of taking God’s word seriously is unslaked by contemporary life.

Which causes me to muse: Did you ever stop to think that no matter how many times you read Peter Pan as a child you could never quite persuade yourself that you could jump out of a third story window and fly, just by thinking wonderful thoughts? Maybe you tried launching yourself from the top bunk–just once, but never the window.

I hope I make my point.